Canada's Competition Bureau has slapped Bell Canada with a $1.25 million fine for encouraging employees to plant glowing online reviews for two company phone apps.
The legitimacy of online reviews has become a growing concern in the digital world where reviewers often remain anonymous.
The Bell and Virgin mobile apps were launched in November 2014 and immediately garnered four-star reviews on Apple's iTunes App Store and Google Play Store. At the time, CBC News reported that possibly half a dozen or more of the rave write-ups were penned by Bell Canada employees – many in senior positions. None of the workers disclosed that they worked for Bell.
In a ruling issued today, the Competition Bureau stated that it "determined that these reviews and ratings created the general impression that they were made by independent and impartial consumers and temporarily affected the overall star rating for the apps."
According to the Bureau, along with paying a fine, Bell has "affirmed its commitment not to direct, encourage or incentivize its employees" to review company products in app stores. The telecommunications company will also sponsor and host a workshop to foster trust in the digital world.
Canada's competition watchdog also noted that Bell removed the reviews shortly after the issue first came to light.
Whistleblower is pleased
"To see that they got fined, I'm very happy," says Scott Stratten, president of UnMarketing, a company that writes about unethical marketing tactics.
He first uncovered the planted Bell reviews. Stratten noticed something was amiss when reading reviews for the latest version of the MyBell Mobile app after it launched last November.
He thought some of the language used was suspicious. For example, S Saade wrote: "Excellent new app. Looking forward to updates with residential services."
"Just words that you do not say in real life," Stratten said at the time.
He began cross-checking reviewers' user names with LinkedIn profiles where people list their work status. He discovered many of the positive reviewers were actually Bell employees.
For example, "S Saade," turned out to be Saad Saade on Linkedin who was vice-president of IT Bell Mobility. Reviewer Tori Brown wrote: "Awesome app! Love it!" Stratten found a Tori Brown on LinkedIn who also turned out to be a senior project manager at Bell.
Stratten tells CBC News that he hopes Bell's fine will serve as a deterrent. "With no repercussion to an action, then there's no reason not to do it again," he says.
He believes many companies plant reviews to bolster products. But he says perhaps now they will think twice knowing the Competition Bureau could take serious action.
"It's sending a message to everybody, saying ethics are important and we will be watching over it."