Investigations Spotlight: Tackling Foul Play and Review Fraud at the 2018 World Cup

In the first of a series of behind-the-scenes articles highlighting the vital work of our review fraud investigators, we look at how our team prevented football fans from being scammed at the 2018 FIFA World Cup…

The eyes of the world were on Russia and the World Cup this summer, but while most of those watching were fixated by events on the field, our investigations team was focused on activity off it.

Major events like a World Cup attract a huge increase in visitors to the host country, and unfortunately there will always be opportunists and fraudsters who try to exploit that. For sites like TripAdvisor, this creates a heightened risk that fake reviewers will seek to boost the profile of individual businesses, to the disadvantage of the vast majority of business owners who play by the rules.

Fortunately, with over fifteen years’ experience in fraud detection, our investigations team is well versed in how to catch the culprits and prevent their reviews from ever making it onto the site. Ahead of the World Cup, there were a number of preemptive steps we took to protect travelling fans.

Step #1: Knowing Where To Look

The first thing we did was to examine review trends across the eleven cities that were hosting World Cup matches: Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Sochi, Kazan, Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don, Samara, Saransk, Volgograd and Yekaterinburg.

To do this, our investigators used visualization tools and digital forensics analysis to identify patterns in the data gathered by our review tracking system. This analysis looked at two specific aspects of review activity: behavioral data and technical data.

Step #2: The Clues Fraudsters Leave Behind

Behavioral data tells us how individual reviewers interact with the site, including the frequency with which they submit reviews, the geographical spread of those reviews, any similarities between reviewer accounts, and many other data points.

In this case, we were looking for any patterns of behavior that seemed outside of the norm. For example, if an individual reviewer had posted a quick burst of reviews, or if two accounts had started engaging with the site in an extremely similar fashion.

Technical data looks at the devices that reviewers use to submit reviews, which can reveal a lot about what a fraudster is up to, including their location. Ahead of the tournament, we were looking for any indicators of multiple reviewer accounts submitting content from the same device — often a tell-tale sign of a paid review company at work.

Step #3: Removing Suspicious Reviews

Our data analysis identified more than 1,300 different reviewer accounts that were attempting to submit reviews in a suspicious manner.

This prompted a closer look by our team and resulted in the removal of over 1,500 suspicious reviews from properties across the eleven host cities — a tiny proportion of the millions of reviews we receive overall each month, but enough to be potentially misleading to travellers and unfair to all the other hospitality businesses that play by the rules.

Step #4: Penalizing Properties

The next step in our investigation was to connect this suspicious reviewer activity to individual properties that might be paying for those reviews.

It was immediately apparent that most of the suspicious activity we were seeing was directed at restaurants, not accommodations.

In total, we spotted suspicious activity linked to more than 250 different restaurants across the 11 host cities. In 55 of those cases, the evidence connecting the properties to paid review accounts was strong enough to warrant a penalty in their TripAdvisor rankings.

We also put all of the properties we caught on a special watch list to pay close attention to the incoming reviews they receive. This means that if any of those businesses try to buy reviews again, we can step in and take action before those reviews ever make it onto the site.

This could ultimately lead to even sterner penalties, such as a red badge notice that would be displayed on the business’s TripAdvisor listing page warning travellers that there are grounds to suspect that the business has been trying to manipulate its reviews.

Step #5: Catching The Fraudsters

It wasn’t just individual properties buying reviews that caught our attention — we were also determined to catch companies that were selling those reviews in the first place.

In a matter of weeks, the team gathered evidence on 18 different paid review companies operating in Russia during the World Cup. Working with our in-house native Russian speakers, our investigations team traced the paid review accounts back to the source — the paid review companies that were funding those accounts — gathering a compelling body of evidence.

Armed with this evidence, our investigators then worked with our Legal team to pursue further action against each of these companies. Our mission is to shut these companies down so their activity can no longer mislead consumers or undermine honest businesses.

Through these and similar efforts, we’ve put a stop to the activity of more than 60 different paid review companies worldwide since 2015.

Step #6: What Can We Learn

The final step in the investigation was to revisit how we gathered the evidence in each case and assess what improvements we could make to our processes that would aid future investigations, especially ahead of large events like a World Cup.

Knowing what we now know in terms of which properties were engaging in fraudulent activity, were there any new patterns or indicators in the data that we hadn’t seen before? Can we train the system to automatically identify these patterns in future? All of this data gets fed back into the system so it continues to improve.

In that way, the patterns and trends we look for are evolving all the time. We know fraudsters are constantly adapting their methods, and we need to stay one step ahead of them.

Step #7: What You Can Do To Help

Have you been approached by someone offering reviews for cash? If so, tell us about it. You can share any information you may have about the companies or individuals trying to sell reviews by contacting our team directly at paidreviews@tripadvisor.com.

Last Updated: 20 August 2018