Scammers trying to rob South Africans are flooding businesses with fake reviews

Scammers trying to con people in South Africa are soiling the reputations of legitimate businesses.

A MyBroadband reader recently sent in screenshots of a conversation they had with a scammer, believing they had stumbled upon a fake review scheme.

The con artist can be seen propositioning the potential victim over WhatsApp with a promise of R400 to R3,000 daily earnings to write fake Google reviews.

“I am Miss Christine from Sauce Advertising Recruitment Agency. We are employing part-time online workers to promote our Hospitality Industries in South Africa,” the message states.

“Their job is to review and give 5 stars to our merchants Hotels to make them popular and and get paid. The basic daily salary is R400 -R3000. [sic]”

After feigning interest, the victim was told they must leave 5-star reviews for The Winston in Melrose Estate and The Residence in Houghton Estate.

Both establishments are high-end boutique hotels.

Once the review is published, the victim must supply a screenshot, after which they will immediately be paid R60.

MyBroadband tried to contact the number in the screenshots, but the line was dead. WhatsApp also appears to have already banned the number from its platform, or the scammer deleted the account.

Upon contacting the hotels for comment, we received a concerned call from The Residence Portfolio’s sales and marketing manager, Taryn van Wyk.

Van Wyk said that they don’t pay for reviews.

She said their owners would not tolerate anything unethical and that, on a practical level, her marketing budget wouldn’t allow it.

Van Wyk explained that most of her budget is spent on face-to-face marketing with various travel and tourism bodies, including tour operators, agencies, and other consultants.

The Residence offers a 10% commission on successful bookings, and the cheapest room in the hotel is R5,000 per night when booking directly.

Simply put, paying R60 for a single review would be extremely expensive.

“[Besides being unethical], it’s not something I would ever pay for because it would be a waste of budget,” Van Wyk said.

“I’m not paying anyone to do reviews because the guests will do it on their own.”

Curiously, the Winston did not answer its phones.

Further investigation revealed that one of Hyatt’s affiliates had entered into a management agreement with an affiliate of the Millat Group to take over management of The Winston.

The hotel is being refurbished and was set to relaunch as the Park Hyatt in 2023. However, the Hyatt website now states that the hotel will only open in 2024.

Hyatt did not respond to our media query, but buying reviews for a hotel that is not currently open would be extremely strange.

Looking into Sauce Advertising revealed that it has been targeted by recruitment scammers before.

It has a notice on its website’s contact page warning people of the issue.

“It seems that recruitment scammers are using our name. If anybody claiming to be from Sauce Advertising contacts you via any platform, please double check that it’s legit,” the notice states.

“If they ask you for money or offer rewards, you can be sure that it’s a scam. We only recruit through verified recruitment agencies and through our website.”

Sauce Advertising also did not respond to a request for comment.

Contrived cons

MyBroadband contacted Artists Against 419 (AA419), a globally renowned volunteer group dedicated to identifying and shutting down scam websites, to find out if they had heard of scams like this.

AA419 explained that this was likely a variant of a recruitment scam, which is just a more complex advance-fee con.

Victims are lured in with the promise of making some extra money from home.

They are usually given an easy task to start with and paid immediately to build their confidence in the scheme.

Then, they are enrolled in an online platform where they must deposit the money they just made to keep working.

Once a “worker” reaches a specific threshold of tasks completed, they are asked to deposit more money to keep working.

The scammers concoct all kinds of reasons to explain why workers must deposit collateral.

AA419 showed us an example where the scammer said they use it as a humanity check to ensure someone isn’t simply using an AI to complete the tasks.

Victims are sometimes allowed to withdraw their earnings a second time, enticing them to deposit larger amounts the following day.

The final time a victim logs into the system, it asks them to deposit ever-escalating amounts.

If the victim looks like they are getting sceptical, the scammer may “loan” them some money for collateral to entice them to keep depositing.

Finally, the scheme will pull out the rug from underneath the victim — although the scammers keep lying until the end.

In the example AA419 showed, the scam told the victim their account had been upgraded to “gold status” and that they needed to deposit more money and complete more tasks before they could withdraw their earnings.

If victims plead for their money to be released, the scammers ghost them.

AA419 said that these types of scams are running wild at the moment, causing huge damage to victims and the companies they target.

MyBroadband scrolled through The Residence’s reviews and found a handful that were clearly inauthentic.

They either copied directly from the hotel’s website, were generated by a large language model (i.e. “chatbot”), or were otherwise nonsensical.

This suggests that several South Africans have already been a victim of the scam. One can only hope they got out when the scammers demanded they deposit more money.

The damage a scam like this can do to an innocent business is also evident.

As we scrolled, we spotted at least one 1-star review where someone said the hotel was soliciting fake reviews on social media.

“Please provide us with further details, as we definitely haven’t requested reviews,” the hotel owner posted in response.

Of course, they never received feedback from the enraged consumer.

The hotel only learned what was happening because a MyBroadband reader was willing to spend their precious time baiting a scammer, and we followed up.

MyBroadband contacted Google for comment on how it handled fake reviews and it did not provide feedback by publication.

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Scammers trying to rob South Africans are flooding businesses with fake reviews