Renters turn to online reviews when searching for apartments. But can they trust them?

Prospective tenants rely heavily on online reviews nowadays to determine where they want to live. But what happens when the reviews are bogus or misleading?

Fake online reviews for apartments and other businesses are becoming a more widespread problem in Charlotte and around the globe, experts say. About 4% of worldwide online reviews are fake, according to the World Economic Forum.

The Federal Trade Commission recently sued the rental listing platform Roomster for purchasing fake reviews and charging for access to unverified or non-existent listings. The regulatory agency has also recently explored potential new rules to more effectively prevent fake reviews and levy stiffer punishments for offenders.

Review farms” – large operations that allow companies to pay for false positive reviews – have begun popping up more frequently, said Tom Bartholomy, president of the Better Business Bureau of Southern Piedmont and Western N.C.

Amazon itself sued repeat fake review offenders on its platform in 2022. The groups were coordinated through thousands of Facebook communities. This growing industry of paid reviews makes the search for truth online even more confusing for users.

Bartholomy’s office receives 50 to 60 complaints per month concerning fake online postings, he said. The complaints come from 37 counties, with Mecklenburg County typically having the most. If complaints are verified by the BBB, they will be reported to the FTC, which sends a warning letter to the suspected company.

Bartholomy said these notices usually halt the problem. But if not, the FTC can fine companies thousands of dollars for each false review.

A rendering of an apartment complex in Charlotte’s University City. Consumer advocates say those shopping for apartments need to be cautious about how much credence they give to online apartment reviews.
A rendering of an apartment complex in Charlotte’s University City. Consumer advocates say those shopping for apartments need to be cautious about how much credence they give to online apartment reviews.

Local complex encourages fake reviews

One student apartment complex in University City encouraged employees to garner reviews by any means, including writing them under fake names and recruiting family members to write them, a former employee says.

The former employee said that all marketing associates – most of whom were also residents – were required to get two new reviews each month. Ideally, the employees were told, the reviews would be written by residents. But when they could not collect enough of those, managers encouraged them to write reviews themselves or ask their friends and family to help, said Aidan, the former employee. He asked that his last name not be printed because he fears career repercussions.

Attempting to follow this direction, Aidan used a Gmail account under a fake name to leave a review of the complex. He also recruited his mother and sister to write positive Google reviews. His mother’s review was positive but factually correct, as she talked about her son’s experience living there. His sister’s review, however, stated that she enjoyed living there; in reality, she had never lived there at all.

Aidan said managers were well aware of the false reviews being posted by staff members.

“The majority of people who I asked to write a review who actually lived there said no,” he said. “So, then you have to outsource … I asked the community manager what to do if I could not get someone who actually lived there to write a review. And he said to write a fake one.”

Surrounding the false Google reviews made by staff were many negative reviews of the complex, left by tenants who cited problems with security, maintenance, billing and miscommunication. Aidan said he also witnessed such problems but felt that managers were not always quick to address them.

Working alongside five other college students, Aidan was a marketing associate in the leasing office for five months in 2021. Marketing associates were paid $10 per hour to answer calls and emails, do basic maintenance, respond to resident questions, and monitor the pool, among other tasks.

Marketing associates were also expected to reach out to prospective tenants and give tours of the property. Aidan said that they were not well trained on the details of the complex or the rental process, and that most tours went unsupervised by management. Associates were supposed to do one shadowed tour before going solo, he said, but that was not often done. “I asked them if I needed to do that,” he said, “but they said, ‘No, just give the tour.’”

This left the door open for inaccurate information to spread to prospective tenants, Aidan said.

The former community manager of the complex, who still works there under new ownership, did not respond to a reporter’s questions about the accusations.

NC law silent on fake reviews

What reportedly happened at the University City complex is not an isolated incident, experts say. Fake online reviews can affect anyone looking for helpful information about products and services.

While the FTC is beginning to crack down more on online review scams, tougher statewide legislation can also help prevent this type of fraud, Bartholomy said. North Carolina law states that companies cannot publish any false advertising that is “untrue, deceptive, or misleading.”

However, no laws or regulations in North Carolina specifically tackle the legality of paid or false online reviews.

The NC Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division website – which provides advice about phone scams, online shopping, and travel, among others – does not feature any specific information about online reviews.

“I haven’t seen anything where the North Carolina Attorney General has taken any action against any company … It would be wonderful if everybody was on the same page,” Bartholomy said.

Some states have begun proposing legislation to penalize companies who use or encourage false reviews. Six states partnered with the FTC in the Roomster lawsuit.

Consumers and prospective tenants should try to read online reviews with a critical eye, Bartholomy said, but it can be extremely hard to identify fake reviews. The BBB uses artificial intelligence and an algorithm to weed out potential fake accounts and reviews, but most review platforms do not, he said. Websites like Yelp and Google can enable people to write false reviews, and little can be done to verify or remove them.

Tom Bartholomy
Tom Bartholomy

So what does Bartholomy think potential renters should do? Use their intuition. Be wary of companies with no negative reviews.

Aidan said his experience has made him much more cautious during the renting process.

“Before this job, I had no clue this was happening,” he said. “If one apartment complex is doing this, how many others are?”

Caroline Willingham of Durham, North Carolina, is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of community news. This story was edited by Ames Alexander, an investigative reporter for The Charlotte Observer.