Forget phoning a business, new app sends a text instead

Updated 19 November 2012
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Forget phoning a business, new app sends a text instead

Customers who are annoyed by automated voice prompts and music when they contact a company for information about a bill, price, product or service can send a text instead. A new app, TalkTo, lets users interact with any business in the United States via text messages sent from their iPhone, Android phone or Web applications. Its creators say it is convenient and efficient.
“Imagine you could text the front desk of a hotel to find out if they have a room available, or a sports store to see if they have lacrosse equipment for kids,” said Stuart Levinson, the CEO of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company TalkTo. Retail shops, restaurants and services are the most popular businesses on the app, which allows users to perform tasks like place an item on hold, book a table at a restaurant, or make an appointment.
Texting a business is similar to texting a friend. Users simply start typing the business name and then select it from a directory that includes tens of millions of businesses.

 


Russian agency offers fake restaurant reviews ahead of World Cup

Updated 21 May 2018
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Russian agency offers fake restaurant reviews ahead of World Cup

MOSCOW: A Russian marketing agency has offered to help restaurants in cities hosting the football World Cup use fake reviews to bump up ratings on review site TripAdviser, the agency’s owner has confirmed.
Marketing company Bacon Agency says it can circumvent TripAdviser’s algorithm for detecting fraudulent posts and publish reviews in foreign languages ahead of an influx of fans from abroad.
“What can you do if no Serbs and no Swedes have ever been to your venue and left a review?” Bacon Agency asks, in a brochure received by a restaurant in Yekaterinburg, which hosts Egypt and Uruguay in their first-round matches.
“You write it yourself!” the agency says.
For 35,000 roubles ($570), the agency promises a spot in TripAdviser’s top 10 list. “We are offering to help tourists find you, and to leave their money specifically with you,” it writes.
“We oppose any attempt to manipulate a business’ ranking,” TripAdviser said. “Our dedicated investigations team is proactive and extremely effective at catching those trying to solicit fake reviews for money.”
Fake reviews are widespread, but it is unusual for a company involved in the practice to discuss it so openly, or to link it explicitly to a sports event.
The World Cup has created lucrative opportunities for businesses in the 12 host cities hoping to benefit from well-to-do foreign fans at a time when Russians are feeling the pinch from a fragile economy and Western sanctions.
Contacted by Reuters, Bacon Agency confirmed it had offered the service, but said it only wanted to act as the middleman between restaurants and freelancers posting fake reviews.
“We understand that all this is illegal in the sense that TripAdviser is against it,” said Bacon Agency’s owner Roman Baldanov.
“We were just testing this niche, because we see high demand. It’s not because we’re bad guys who came in and said, look, you’ve got to start swindling ... All restaurants know that reviews are ordered, and many use this service,” Baldanov said.
He said nobody had yet taken up his offer. “The response we got was: thanks, but we are already doing this ourselves.”
Reuters tracked restaurants in six World Cup host cities over two months, noting an uptick in suspicious-looking posts.
An event like the World Cup increases incentives to post such reviews, said Stanford University’s Jeff Hancock, an expert in detecting fake reviews.
“Any time you start seeing reviews come in all at once, look sort of similar, have the same kind of language, then alarm bells should start going off,” Hancock said.
At least six restaurants in the TripAdviser top 30 list for Kaliningrad, which will host Croatia and Nigeria, appeared to fit this description.
Peperonchino, a cafe serving Italian cuisine 20 minutes’ drive from the World Cup stadium, used to get around one review a week.
But two weeks ago, reviews began to flood in — 45 in total — the majority from accounts with stock photos, created this year, and rating the cafe five stars. Peperonchino rose from 28th place to 2nd on TripAdviser’s list.
Sister cafe Peperonchino 2 also received a flood of reviews in the past fortnight, also 45 in total, 32 from such accounts.
“All our reviews are real and are left by our customers,” Peperonchino said. “It’s just we have a big loyalty system, a mobile phone app, and so on.”
In a strategy document seen by Reuters, Bacon Agency explains how to avoid detection by TripAdviser.
“The issue is that TripAdviser has developed algorithms which monitor user activity and when they spot an attempt to manipulate the numbers, they sanction the venue,” the agency writes.
To trick the algorithm, fake reviews are published using different IP addresses, devices, browsers and operating systems. Each account has a “back story” of earlier posts.
The reviews will be “full of real details about the menu and decor, as well as ‘real’ photographs, which we will ask you to take.”