Vanessa Whitaker and Deborah Bligh of Social Buzzing (Image: instagram)
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My job involves encountering unpleasant businesses as a matter of course but I’ve come across few more vicious than Social Buzzing.
This company claims to excel at running social media accounts on behalf of business clients, saying: “Let the experts at Social Buzzing get to work on building your online presence today”.
Not all of its clients have been impressed and one of them posted a one-star review of Social Buzzing on Trustpilot.
“They show no appreciation for who you are as a business and would rather provide you with generic posts than the tailor-made ones they promise,” wrote specialist running business TrueSapien, adding that it terminated the contract after Social Buzzing failed to provide any of the promised social media posts and refused a refund of its £419 payment.
Social Buzzing (I previously wrote about it here ) has a single director, 32-year-old Vanessa Whitaker of Cheam, Surrey, while its operations director is Deborah Bligh.
The latter retaliated by telling TrueSapien to delete the review or face “an online battle with us leaving reviews for each other”.
TrueSapien initially refused to back down, believing its comments to be a fair reflection of its experience, and so Ms Bligh carried out her threat.
She kicked off with a one-star review of TrueSapien, calling the director Stephen Gaitskell “aggressive and threatening”, without providing any evidence to back this up.
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There followed three more one-star reviews of TrueSapien, posted by people who had never been its customers.
These were the only negative reviews that TrueSapien had ever received on Trustpilot and had the potential to be hugely damaging to its business, one of the fake reviews reading bluntly: “Awful service. I don’t recommend”.
Mr Gaitskell replied on Trustpilot to Ms Bligh’s review.
“We’re sorry that you felt the need to respond to the negative review which we left your agency by leaving a review about TrueSapien here, especially as you aren’t a customer or member of ours,” he wrote.
“We regret that you felt this necessary to troll our account and would urge you to reconsider this unfair and unethical course of action.
"Would you also please cease encouraging your employees at Social Buzzing, whom we didn’t even interact with, to leave fake reviews by posing as customers.”
He also complained to Trustpilot.
Far from helping, the review site told him that the negative reviews would remain online, saying: “We have looked into the situation and cannot remove the reviews as we cannot conclude that these users have not had an experience with your company and therefore must take a neutral stance.”
Trustpilot was in effect saying that the defamatory reviews would remain online even though it had no evidence that they were genuine – it just didn’t have evidence that they were fake.
This has left TrueSapien considering deleting its review of Social Buzzing so that Ms Bligh will take down the harmful fake reviews.
“I want to put this behind me and get on with running the business, but this makes a mockery of Trustpilot as an honest review site,” said Mr Gaitskell.
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I offered Ms Bligh and Social Buzzing the opportunity to respond but heard nothing.
Trustpilot carries a string of five-star reviews for businesses posted by people who, coincidentally, have also all posted five-star reviews for Social Buzzing.
“Really impressed,” wrote Caitlin Regan of law firm Austin Kemp Solicitors, while saying of Social Buzzing: “Seeing great results so far!”
According to her LinkedIn page, she’s worked as an account manager at Social Buzzing – something not admitted in her reviews.
About half the five-star Trustpilot reviews of Austin Kemp Solicitors have been posted by people who have also heaped praise on Social Buzzing.
So is the social media firm posting fake positive reviews of itself and its clients?
It would not answer, but I did hear from Austin Kemp Solicitors.
“We are not marketing experts, and therefore we outsource our marketing projects,” said director Amandeep Kooner, 40, from Huddersfield.
“We can confirm that we believe this firm is a victim of unscrupulous behaviour at the hands of third party marketing agencies.
“Consequently, we confirm we are in the process of initiating legal proceedings against marketing agencies who have not acted in a proper manner.”
While dubious positive reviews of Austin Kemp remained online, Trustpilot removed what seems like a legitimate negative one.
A reviewer pointed out that Austin Kemp uses an 0845 customer enquiry number but does not clearly display the cost of up to 72p per minute, in breach of Ofcom guidelines which state: “The service charge should be prominent and in close proximity to the number itself.”
Trustpilot removed the post, telling the reviewer: “austinkemp.co.uk has flagged your review as being defamatory”.
Debbie Bligh and right Vanessa Whitaker of Social Buzzing
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The law firm insists that it has not broken Ofcom rules because the call cost is contained in its terms and conditions, adding that it is now changing to an 0333 number charged at standard national rates.
A social media marketer who formerly worked for Social Buzzing said she was paid around 50p for every fake review she posted for its clients on sites including Trustpilot.
“Very professional and friendly!” wrote Izabela Karadzhova about law firm Austin Kemp Solicitors, while her post about Social Buzzing said: “They definitely know what they’re doing and I’m always happy with the service provided!”
Now she regrets taking part in the deception, saying she had no idea that she would be asked to write bogus reviews when she started work for Social Buzzing.
“I worked with them for about two to three months last year,” she said.
“The position was for social media management but what was involved turned out to be very different from what I had expected.
“Nobody said anything about writing fake reviews until I started getting emails about posting reviews for their clients.
“Sometimes they would send me the text for the review, sometimes they told me I should come up with my own.
“It was my first month and I didn’t want to cause any problems so I just did it.
“When I got paid it was about 50p per review.
“I’m only sorry it took me that long to quit.”
Among the companies that have received glowing reviews from Social Buzzing is investment sham Quadriga Asset Management, which promised unlikely returns of 14.6%.
“First class experience, would recommend!” Deborah Bligh gushed on Google Reviews.
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Last August, I exposed a range of lies being told by Quadriga Asset Management, including the fact that the supposed senior personnel pictured on its website did not exist.
It was added to the Financial Conduct Authority’s consumer alert list of unauthorised firms the day after my article appeared.
Ms Bligh has now changed her mind about Quadriga, which seems to have failed to pay Social Buzzing for its help in trying to manipulate its online reputation.
“They have ripped us off for thousands,” she has posted on Quadriga’s Facebook page.
Meanwhile, the message that Social Buzzing has fallen out with this former client does not appear to have reached all its past associates who posted gushing reviews of Quadriga.
“Good, professional team!” wrote Olanike Popoola on Google Reviews five months ago, in a post that remains online.
According to her LinkedIn page she worked at Social Buzzing at the time.
Trustpilot is a Danish company founded by Peter Muhlmann, and since its launch in 2007 it has published reviews of around 480,000 websites.
Its latest accounts show its UK operation had a turnover of almost £18million – it makes money when firms pay for extras to help manage their accounts.
I put my evidence about Social Buzzing to it and was told an alert had now been put at the top of its Trustpilot page.
“Warning! We’ve detected misuse on this page,” it reads.
“We’ve detected a number of fake reviews for this business, including reviews that have been submitted by employees of this business. Don’t worry, we’ve removed them.
“In addition, we have received evidence that this business has used the threat of negative reviews to try to force reviewers and other businesses to remove or edit the reviews on this page.
“We have sent this business a cease and desist notice to immediately stop this behaviour.”
A spokesman added: “Note that the investigation of Social Buzzing continues.
“This includes assessing the provided communication between TrueSapien and Social Buzzing and whether other people have been encouraged to write negative reviews for TrueSapien.
“If we find any aspects that are breaching our guidelines we will take action as outlined in our ‘action we take’ policy.