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Five Star Fraud: Greencare Pool Builder customers duped by fake reviews

Pool in North Las Vegas built by Greencare pool builder
Posted at 3:07 PM, Mar 27, 2023

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — The soothing sound of bubbles in Chris Hove's backyard is about the only peaceful part of his pool project.

"It was a long road," Hove said. "Just a poor experience all around."

Before deciding on a pool builder, he got quotes from six different companies.

"Out of all of them, Greencare seemed to be the best as far as price."

He was also drawn to Greencare Pool Builder's four-star status on Yelp and the company's many five-star reviews.

PART 2: Who's to blame for fake review fraud: bad business, big tech, or both?

"I think they're very important," Hove said.

They're important especially when making a five-figure investment.

Hove's family paid a little over $63,000 for a small pool with spa-like features that act like a large hot tub.

Hove is one of five homeowners in one North Las Vegas neighborhood who hired Greencare and they all told 13 Investigates similar stories.

"They experienced a lot of the same problems: the lack of communication, the delays, the shoddy workmanship, things being left out of the contract, things being forgotten about," Hove said.

Everything seemed fine at first but when problems with the pool arose, Hove and several of his neighbors all went back online and noticed the same suspicious pattern.

Those five-star reviews simply didn't hold water.

Kay Dean is a former federal criminal investigator turned digital detective who delved deep into online review fraud about five years ago after a bad personal experience with a doctor.

She calls social media reviews on platforms like Yelp, Facebook and Google an ocean of disinformation.

"Greencare Pool Builder appeared on my radar in one of my other investigations," Dean said. "It's a pretty egregious case."

Dean analyzed 107 Greencare reviewers that were recommended by Yelp.

"As someone who's not a computer engineer, using just eyeballs and spreadsheets, what I'm able to find is just shocking," Dean said.

She believes many of the fake reviews originate overseas.

"Quite often, these rings are organized in countries like India, Bangladesh or Pakistan."

Of the 107 Greencare reviews she analyzed, only four of the profiles were from Las Vegas.

"I don't need anybody to post anything that's phony," Greencare owner John Reese said.

"How do you think that makes you guys look," Channel 13's Darcy Spears asked.

"I feel like ... Obviously, it doesn't look good because when it was brought to my attention, I wasn't aware of it," Reese said.

PART 2: Who's to blame for fake review fraud: bad business, big tech, or both?

Several customers had called Greencare out before 13 Investigates got involved, flagging some of the phony five-star reviews.

"We're still working on it and that's the other problem. I've been calling Yelp and talking to them," Reese said. "I can flag certain things and say that I don't agree with this particular review but I can't physically remove it."

He can't but Yelp moderators can. They did after 13 Investigates started asking questions. More than 200 reviews disappeared from the company's Yelp page and their rating went from four stars to three. Yelp says, "We rely on reporting from our community of consumers and business owners, and we take these reports seriously."

Reese said he's contacted Yelp and is waiting to hear back about why some of the fake reviews are still there.

Yelp claims, "According to our records, Greencare Pool Builder has only contacted Yelp to dispute critical reviews and we have not received any correspondence from them since 2022. We do not have any record of them reporting potentially fake positive reviews."

Yelp also explains the platform has a separate section for reviews their "automated recommendation software cannot currently recommend."

And despite the Federal Trade Commission saying fake reviews are illegal under federal law, Yelp says, "A recent Material survey found that 79% of people [blog.yelp.com] say they would prefer to see all the reviews for a business or product, including those that a review platform believes are fake or less trustworthy. This demonstrates that consumers want to access all the information available to them in order to come to their own conclusions and inform spending decisions."

Hove said that's hogwash.

"To do something like that is extremely shady," Hove said.

Here's how obvious some of the fake reviewers are.

Many of their Facebook profiles have only a handful of friends, most of them foreign men.

One example we found is Samuel Rogers and Joel Mitchell used the same pilfered profile photo of a young woman.

Dominic Connolly, who has a bikini-clad blonde as his profile picture, posted a Greencare review on Facebook on Dec. 5 which is identical, word-for-word, to a Yelp review posted three days earlier by Samantha W. The same review also appeared on Google under the profile name Liliana Cris.

Samantha W. is one of over 70 Greencare reviewers recommended by Yelp who Dean found padding their online profiles.

"They are plagiarizing content from Trip Advisor reviews in order to make their Yelp profiles look more realistic and I have found thousands of examples of this on Yelp," Dean said.

Samantha W. posted a review for a San Francisco cafe in November. That same review, complete with the same capitalization and punctuation errors, was posted two years earlier on Trip Advisor by someone else.

"I uncovered, I think it was at least 70 profiles," Dean said. "And I stopped counting."

Hove, a real Las Vegas customer, had previously posted a negative review about his experience with Greencare.

"It was after we kind of blasted them online for this lack of customer service and the shoddy workmanship," Hove said. "Suddenly, they started responding. They started answering calls, returning calls, showing up."

Reese himself took over Hove's project while also addressing concerns from his neighbors.

"I apologize," Reese said. "There were some mishaps out there construction-wise and they're all being resolved."

However, the sour taste remains for Hove because of what else he discovered when looking more closely at Greencare's reviews including more from Kay Dean who found multiple Yelp reviews posted by company co-owner Tim Hanlon.

"You had said that you weren't aware that this was going on," Spears said. "Tim, your partner, was clearly aware that this was going on. He also routinely comments and thanks the fake reviewers for their positive reviews."

"Okay. Yeah. I need to look into that," Reese said.

Tim H.’s reviews were in Yelp's "not recommended" section. Yelp tells 13 Investigates, "His first review for Greencare Pool Builder was posted on September 25, 2013 and was removed by Yelp moderators the following day. He wrote seven more reviews for his own business between July 8, 2014 and July 7, 2018, all of which were previously unrecommended."

Yelp explains, "The recommendation software is entirely automated and applies the same objective rules to every business. No employee at Yelp, business owner, or reviewer has the ability to influence or override the decisions that the software makes. This approach is deliberate to avoid conflicts of interest."

Reese said he's still looking into how all the fake reviews got there in the first place.

PART 2: Who's to blame for fake review fraud: bad business, big tech, or both?

"They're very specific. They name employees. They talk about project details," Spears said. "That information had to come from somewhere and that information is posted by clearly fake profiles.

"Right. Right. And so, I agree," Reese said. "It could be from multiple areas like friends, family, friends of family, co-workers, things like that, people who are thinking they're doing us a benefit."

Greencare says it traces back to being strong-armed by Yelp and they're far from the only business making that claim.

In fact, an alleged nationwide small business shakedown by Yelp was the subject of a documentary film.

As this special report continues Tuesday at 6 p.m., we ask social media giants Facebook, Yelp and Google why they didn't catch the fake reviews.

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