Several European fintech companies and regulated financial brokers have fallen victim to fake reviews and misinformation in a well-organized scheme through a network of fake blogs.
The fake review scheme was uncovered after several websites began publishing false information about firms that are based in Europe and successfully doing business.
At first glance, these websites are innocuous in nature with news and educational articles on the topics of the digital economy and online investing. A closer look reveals that although innocuous articles are updated regularly to give these sites the appearance of professionalism, the actual purpose is to publish negative reviews in order to monetize on market participants.
One-size-fits-all fake reviews have been created on most financial market participants, generated by an algorithm following the same template. They review financial services, forex brokers, cryptocurrency tokens and even online gambling companies, giving them a negative connotation and tarnishing their business reputation. All of these reviews were accompanied by negative “user-generated” comments. According to the meta-data of the web pages, it was found that all of them appeared within 1 minute after the publication of these reviews.
These sites have profiles of the authors of the reviews under the names Pedro Martínez González, as a financier who graduated in Economics from the University of Salamanca, or Eduardo López, a journalist from Madrid. But in reality, these profiles are fake and such people do not exist in real life. Crisis communications experts believe that when the author of an article has a fictitious name and an illustration created through the AI service Generated Photos, it is a clear sign of deception. The same goes for a live support chat manager whose image was purchased on Shutterstock.
Dozens of these sites had the same content, the same contact form, the same chat bot script and service related to the return of stolen funds.
“All they do is talk bad about other companies and try to steal people’s money by promising to take money from them,” reported one user who listed a low score of 1 on Trustpilot.
The sites identified as taking part in the fake review distribution operation target Spanish-speaking audiences and gather their main traffic from Mexico, Spain, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Peru and Colombia. These include aanbevolenbrokers.com, anbefaltbrokers.com, brokerconsigliati.com, brokersrecomendados.com, brokersrecommandes.com, brokersdeforexconfiables.com, brokerforexaffidabili.com, corretoresrecomendados.com, corretoresforexdeconfianca.com, empfohlenebrokers.com, gogoannas.com.au, polecanibrokerzy.com, recommended-brokers.com, zuverlassigerforexbroker.com. These sites also had translations into English, Norwegian, Portuguese, Polish, Italian, and Swedish.
Although some of the sites proxy traffic through Cloudflare’s CDN, making it difficult to find the actual location of the servers, it was possible to find out the physical location of most of the sites. They are hosted on servers in St. Petersburg, Russia, and were uncovered by analyzing MX records in DNS. They also participated in the scheme of link exchange with each other, revealed through the analysis of backlinks by Ahrefs service. The same servers also hosted the website of eco 103.1 fm, a Spanish-language radio station with 1,313 Instagram followers, and the website of clienteshop.info, a Mexican online software store targeting South American customers.
Backed by WayBack Machine, an initiative of the nonprofit organization Web Archive that creates a digital library of internet sites, the first casts of fake review sites were made in 2017, but activity peaked in 2021. While most of the sites are no longer online, their domains are paid for through 2024. Sites like brokersrecomendados.com and brokersdeforexconfiables.com are still available at the direct address and continue to exercise influence over financial brokers who rely on their reputation and reliability to attract and retain customers. From the reviews on TrustPilot left by users to brokersdeforexconfiables.com, it is evident that they are being charged €200 on a monthly basis to show themselves as a regulated company.
According to the World Economic Forum, fake online reviews cost the global online economy 152 billion dollars a year. The ease and availability of fake reviews is only increasing, whether created by humans, algorithms, or click farms. This finding is supported by a report from the European Commission, which indicates that fake reviews are causing one of the most costly damages to the e-commerce industry, distorting the market and causing colossal harm to consumers.