Fruity and ostentatious, yet highly fictitious: Online restaurant, hotel reviews easy to fake

We all do it. When we're planning a trip to an unfamiliar city or we're looking for a new hole-in-the-wall for a dinner date near home, we poke around online for reviews of local restaurants.

But on some sites, reviews are serving up a steaming plate of B.S.

WalletPop told you about the hugely popular Yelp, which has been accused of extorting restaurants and shops that got received bad reviews. For a price, says a San Francisco CBS affiliate, Yelp will move the badmouthing blurb lower down the page, potentially out of sight. One sofa store owner paid Yelp $350 a month to bury her embarrassing reviews.

Last year, one New York City hotel was awarded a five-star review by an effusive reader of TripAdvisor. Except the hotel hadn't even completed construction yet. Public relations flacks were suspected.

This sort of stuff happens all the time. TripAdvisor says it tries to weed out these obviously false postings. But some readers allege it swerves too far even in that. One travel expert about Hawaii accuses TripAdvisor of twice killing reviews that conflicted with its paid sponsors. For sites like these, integrity is everything. Many publications, though, don't have the resources to do the follow-ups necessary. Increasingly, the phonies are not apparent.

The latest review organ to be slammed is Wine Spectator, whose opinions appear in published form, online, and on those little gushy review cards stuck to the wine racks at liquor stores everywhere. Gunning for the publication's Award of Excellence, a scamster with a point to prove invented a fake Milanese restaurant with a real address, drew up a bogus menu and wine list, and sent in the $250 fee for consideration. It got the award.

The hoax even spread to other user-review sites. Chowhound, a widely used restaurant tipster bulletin board, posted convincing information to back up the existence of the fake place that would turn up in web searches. Reading them, you'd never suspect the place didn't actually exist.

Wine Spectator published a response that says, in effect, that it was deliberately hoaxed with convincing fakery. True. But the point is that it was hoaxed. Easily. A stunter did it this time. How many awards were given to real establishments trying to boost their names by fraud?

A single attempted trip to the Osteria L'Intrepido would likely have sent the house of cards crashing down. But the "Award of Excellence" classification is issued mostly by paper-pushers armed with not much more than a computer and a telephone. Like your high school class ring, the Award of Excellence bestows the glimmer of false prestige to any yokel with the cash to pony up.

These blow-ups don't make these sites useless. I believe most people use them honestly (although, in the case of Yelp, not always intelligibly). But follow these suggestions to make them work best for you:

* Read as many reviews for a given place as you can and ignore the most glowing and most angry postings, which could be either from the owners or their rivals
* If an entry reads like it was written by a PR person (too detailed, too ecstatic), it just might have been.
* Post regular reviews of your own on the sites you like. The more people post, the more the sites' phony write-ups will be diluted, and the more useful the databases become
* For some destinations with legions of fans, like Walt Disney World, read carefully to determine whether the reviewer is truly appraising or unduly starry-eyed
* Always consider the source and account for cultural differences. For example, American tourists complain bitterly about the small hotel rooms in Europe
* Don't reach conclusions about places with only a few reviews
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