Positive online reviews can be of immense help to a business looking to grow. But as consumers, how do we determine the authenticity of an online review? Is the review actually an owner trying to push his or her own business? Or ruin another’s?

iuzeit | Spot Fake Online Reviews with These Four Red Flags

When your grandmother needed to find a trusted service provider she pulled out a phone book and looked with suspicion at the companies that called themselves “AAA Whatever” to get near the beginning of the listings. These days, the “AAAs” out there want to mislead potential customers with phony reviews.

Writing fake reviews with an agenda, called astroturfing, has become so serious that this summer New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman slapped 19 different companies with a total of $350,000 in penalties for phony online reviews. After the yearlong investigation, Schneiderman told The New York Times that the practice is often worse than old-fashioned false advertising.

“When you look at a billboard you can tell it’s a paid advertisement,” says Schneiderman, “but on Yelp or CitySearch, you assume you’re reading authentic consumer opinions, making this practice even more deceiving.” The investigators at the attorney general’s office determined that posting fake reviews is a global business. Companies in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Eastern Europe are often paid to chime in on comments for as little as $1 a post.

There are four red flags that will help you spot a fake online review:

Red Flag 1: Random Names with No History of Comments

A lot of sites require commenters to sign in or register, which creates a history with that account. A reviewer with a long history or designated high-profile status most likely doesn’t have a specific agenda, other than to share opinions. Also, does the user’s name or location, which is often traceable with a few clicks, seem logical? If they’re reviewing a steakhouse in Oklahoma from the Philippines, maybe not.

Red Flag 2: Overly Hostile Reviews

Utter disdain, while sometimes amusing, usually has a story behind it. Jealous or desperate competitors can fire off a litany of accusations at another local business with relative ease. So, watch out for reviewers who scream in Caps Lock.

Red Flag 3: Highly Emotional Reviews

These are even more dangerous, specifically if a commenter insults a particular person by name. There’s obviously more at play there. Keep scrolling.

Red Flag 4: Reviews Lacking Any Detail

Look for specific statements or details instead of reviews that gloss over big ideas. “Everything on the menu is fantastic!” Really? Probably not. Besides, who eats everything on the menu?

In the end, remember that everyone has a bad experience on occasion. No person, customer or business is perfect 100 percent of the time. To see what most people are saying, average the comments by tossing aside some of the really high and low outliers. And watch out for the astroturf.