SALT LAKE CITY — If you are a company owner, or work for one, watch out for a new scam that involves bogus negative online reviews.
A company is putting horrible reviews of small business online, and then offering to improve the company's reputation and take the reviews off for a fraction of the cost that a real reputation improvement company would charge.
Sierra West Jewelers owner Tim Branscomb believes his business was right in the middle of one of these scams.
"We knew it wasn't really a real thing. Of course when someone is offering $500 the day (the bad review) goes up seemed not legitimate," he said.
Branscomb believes he and his employees keep their customers happy and answer all complaints. But he says that they received a call from a "reputation improvement company" telling them they had a negative review online and that the company would take the review offline if Sierra West paid $500. Then, for that same $500, they would monitor the Internet to remove any other bad reviews.
We took it very seriously and wanted to get to the bottom of it, but then were not able any longer to get a hold of the company.
Branscomb says it was clear from the writing that this bad reviewer had never even been to a Sierra West Jewelry store.
"They said that we were rude and thug-like and that all we want to do is sell them something, and that we put ourselves above everyone else, and that we supposedly talked bad about other jewelers. We do not allow that type of service," Branscombe said.
So, when the supposed reputation improvement company called again, Branscombe was prepared.
"We asked hard questions they didn't want to answer, like who was the head of your company? What did the initials stand for? Why aren't you on Google search?" Branscombe said.
Here's another clue you're dealing with a scam -- they hang up on you.
"We took it very seriously and wanted to get to the bottom of it, but then were not able any longer to get a hold of the company. And, of course, they hung up on us," Branscombe said.
Here's part of the problem: There are legitimate reputation improvement companies out there. If you run into a "real" negative online review, you have options. Online expert Matthew Hunt with smallbusinessonlinecoach.com says:
- Look at it as a positive - If it's a real review, use it as a learning experience.
- Contact the reviewer - Thank them for their feedback, ask how you can make it right and if they wouldn't mind amending their review.
- Be on the offensive - Counteract that bad review with a bunch of good ones.
If you encounter a scam, there are agencies to contact. For instance, the Small Business Administration has a whole department trying to fight fraud.
Signs of a possible scam
The people behind the scams are great at hiding. The phone number had a fake caller-id, and if it is like most of these sorts of scams, it is all done outside the country. So even if you can trace the scammers somehow, it's extremely difficult to get the other country to cooperate in the investigation.
When it comes to payment, a sure sign that it is a scam is when the business demands that you pay by wiring the money. If you wire money, it is not traceable or refundable, and it vanishes into the anonymous thief's pocket. So, always use credit cards or Pay-Pal, or something that offers protection. Only wire money if you absolutely, positively know the person to whom you are sending it.