Fishy online reviews threatening to sink Ottawa pool companies

The owners of three Ottawa businesses say they're victims of an online smear campaign aimed at driving potential customers to competitors.

3 Ottawa business owners banding together after falling victim to suspiciously similar online reviews

Earl Spinks, Daniel Lafleur and Len Payne (left to right) own Ottawa pool and landscape companies recently targeted by negative online reviews they claim aren't from real customers. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

Earl Spinks is no detective. His company installs swimming pools and patios.

But Spinks, along with two other Ottawa business owners, has nonetheless found himself sleuthing after a mysterious culprit — or culprits — engaged in an apparent online smear campaign that's threatening to sink their reputations.

Right now we are kind of fighting a shadow.- Earl Spinks, Impressions Group Ottawa

"Right now we are kind of fighting a shadow," an exasperated Spinks said. "We're trying to find where this attack is coming from."

Spinks owns Impressions Group Ottawa, a pool and landscape company. Normally, he and the other two men — Daniel Lafleur of Sonshine Hot Tub Service and Len Payne of Ottawa Pool and Patio Ltd. — would be business rivals.

But the "attack," as Spinks calls it, has given the trio a reason to come together, and a shared — if shadowy — foe.

Top ratings with BBB

They already had a lot in common: all three own well-established businesses with dozens of employees and thousands of loyal clients.

All three are members in good standing of the Better Business Bureau (BBB), where they've enjoyed top ratings for customer satisfaction.

'[We're] trying to find where this attack is coming from,' says Earl Spinks of Impressions Group Ottawa. (Simon Gardner/CBC)
And over the past two weeks, all three have watched helplessly as their reputations have been savaged by unkind, anonymous Google reviews. The reviews are often the first mentions to pop up on computer screens when potential customers search for their companies online.

Typical reviews complain of "rude and unfriendly service." One review describes "going through hell" after hiring one of the companies, while another reviewer claims Payne screamed at her.

Reviewers rate the businesses with just one star out of five on Google's feedback system.

The business owners believe the barrage of negative criticism is deliberately timed to coincide with the approach of spring, when many homeowners begin dreaming of backyard improvements such as pools and hot tubs.

Instead, they say calls have dropped off this season compared to previous years.

"We've been targeted, and probably because we do a really good job," said Lafleur.

Reviews 'suspicious,' police agree

Ottawa police agree the coincidence — three reputable companies competing in the same market, attacked in the same way at the same time — is "suspicious."

Compounding that suspicion is the fact that some reviewers using the same name have left negative feedback for more than one of the three businesses.

Someone calling themselves Grey Hawk, for example, has named all three companies in nasty reviews. Other names left by the reviewers appear made up.

The company owners insist the reviews are bogus, and weren't left by any of their real customers.

"I've never heard of them before," Payne said. "One said we installed pools for them in 2016 and we did a bad job and they didn't like to deal with us. I've never heard of the customer, don't know who they are."
'We've been targeted, and probably because we do a really good job,' says Daniel Lafleur of Sonshine Hot Tub Service. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

Nor do any of the business owners recall receiving complaints resembling the ones described in the Google reviews.

"We never received any phone calls from them saying we did a bad job, or wanted us to fix anything," Payne said. "So, as far as I'm concerned they are either competition or maybe web-based marketers who are trying to drive business to the competition."

Lafleur said it's been a frustrating experience.

"All that time and energy and effort, all those resources that we have put into marketing so that we could keep ourselves in the number one spot, to just have somebody who comes along and starts cyberattacking or cyberbullying businesses has got to be of concern to consumers," Lafleur said.

Fraud on the rise

Staff Sgt. Stephanie Burns of the Ottawa police fraud unit looked at some of the negative reviews and agreed they could "potentially" amount to a crime. But she said they fall short of the sort of online activity police would investigate.

Staff Sgt. Stephanie Burns heads the fraud section of the Ottawa police. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

"Fraud is on the rise, there is so much of it and people are actually losing money to fraud, so it would be impossible for us to investigate all of these complaints," Burns said.

Burns said even if fraud investigators did pursue the complaint, the online reviewers — while not exactly sophisticated — have taken steps to hide their identity.

That leaves Spinks, Lafleur and Payne on their own to try to root out the culprits and seek recourse through civil court.

But that's no easy feat, Spinks said. "Are they from a competitor? Is this just a prank? We are not really sure and it's that uncertainty that makes it really difficult to combat and determine, where do we go?"

Most reviews legitimate: Google

Meanwhile Payne said he's tried to contact Google about getting the reviews removed, so far without success.

In an email to CBC, Google spokesperson Aaron Brindle said the company is reviewing the business owners' concerns about its customer review service.

"We believe that overall the reviews system is an opportunity for great businesses to shine and attract more customers. The vast majority of reviews on Google Maps are legitimate," Brindle said.

Brindle added anyone who believes a review violates Google's posting guidelines can flag it as inappropriate.

Accepting payment to write negative reviews about a competitor and misrepresenting one's identity are considered contraventions of Google's posting policy, and could lead to the reviews being removed.

For now, the negative reviews remain online, and Spinks, Lafleur and Payne worry they could cause business to dry up.

"I really want to get this nipped in the bud," Payne said. "Everybody checks Google and Google reviews when they are buying a product, and when you get people slandering a business it's pretty bad for us."

'I really want to get this nipped in the bud,' says Len Payne of Ottawa Pool and Patio Ltd. (Simon Gardner/CBC)