As far as opportunity goes we can truly say that we have entered the golden age of internet consumership. Millions of general news portals will offer you updates on current events, thousands of hobby-related websites or apps will try to fill that quickly diminishing amount of free time that you have left, hundreds of apps will ask for that sweet Install button click and offer you entertainment and information. And, of course, if you are willing to pay for something, your options will be far from limited.
With the constantly expanding list of websites or apps that offer you services that you need(or don’t) it is becoming more and more difficult to navigate this vast sea of options and make a weighted decision where to put your hard-earned money.
And hence we rely on something that we have always relied on – opinions of previous buyers/owners. You won’t purchase a car without viewing half a dozen reviews on YouTube, you won’t buy insurance for that car without investigating the insurance company for bad customer feedback, and you won’t install an app if the rating on the market is not up to your standard.
However here lies the problem that we have tried to look into – how can you rely on these ratings and how can you trust these reviews? We have decided to look into this matter, and we have chosen Online Dating as the main target of our research, both because the problem with review/ratings trust can be clearly seen in this field, and because we have already had a lot of experience with dating companies research.
We have started a research on a list of dating apps currently in the top 10 of app markets, and would be glad to write a complete report of our findings, but some facts that we found shocked us to the point that this article will be solely dedicated to one application, or as it turned out to be – a network of dating applications and websites with practices so shady, you can hardly see any light.
And that application is Hily.
At the time of writing, this app was second top grossing app in Dating category in Google Market, and #36 in Social Networking category on App Store, with tens of thousands of installs and reviews.
When we just began to delve on the subject of review reliance and ratings trust, the first thing that we have noticed is the polarity of ratings: most ratings are either very bad or extremely good, with a very few in the middle. This can be explained by human nature of course – you will only bother to write a review if your experience with something has either been horrible(in your opinion) or simply terrific. Very few people bother to write a review about something that has only managed to bring out a “meh” from them.
Hily is no exception here, with the ratings looking like this:
Google market reviews are showing it more clearly than App Store, but it’s still a fact for both markets.
However, after going deeper into reviews and ratings this polarity can also be explained differently – you need 5 times as much 5-star reviews than the 1-star ones to keep the app over the 4.2 ratings, which is type of golden standard for any app that wishes to maintain an audience. And while you don’t have control over the amount of 1-star reviews that your app gets, it turns out that it is quite possible to maintain that “healthy” rating.
We are of course talking about fake reviews. Some of them are easy to notice(like the ones that openly praise the paid-for features in a supposedly free to use app), while the others can actually look genuine, until you start matching them to each other and cross-comparing them between markets. It becomes rather obvious that the vast majority of these reviews are quite fake, but this is not what actually made us chose Hily as the main subject for this article. The practice of fake reviews isn’t new or unique to this app, but what we came to unfold later on might be.
If we can’t trust the ratings from the application markets what can we do? Well, there are quite a few user-rating websites out there, and we took a look at them in hope of finding a different point of view. And this is what we got:
Quite a different picture. Some dedicated people, perhaps understanding the fact that their reviews will be lost among hundreds of fake ones, have to go and find a place where their feedback will be heard, in order to warn others about bad services. Reviews on these sites are very different from what you see on app markets.
However, even this was not enough for us to consider Hily as the main subject for this article. But the fact that Hily is connected to a whole network of dating websites, that are using fake profiles, fake communication, draining money from people without a way out, and implementing shady billing procedures to hide this activity – that was enough indeed..
You see, among some 5-star reviews on Trustpilot (probably put there in an attempt to compensate the 1-star ones), we found one that grabbed our attention. It wasn’t the review itself(although praising a feature that everyone else seems to blame is strange), it’s the profile of the person who posted it.
That person, a Ukrainian by the name of Dimitry Bratina, has only ever posted 2 reviews, both 5-stars. One for Hily and one for Taimi – another dating app in more of a niche LGBTQI+ dating field.
After reviewing Taimi, which has not originally made our research list, we have quickly come to a conclusion that this actually is a clone-app of Hily: same features, same monetization model, and their websites are partially identical. If you go through reviews of the apps it will be clear that even the problems and issues of these apps are the same. Of course the appearance is different since the apps have to appeal to different types of audiences.
This can be explained by the fact that both companies have been co-founded by Alex Pasykov, another Ukrainian, and he has probably decided to diversify his interests by creating these two differently-targete apps using mostly the same features, both back in 2017.
However, Mr. Pasykovs other business endeavours are more interesting. For 8 years, up until 2018, Mr. Pasykov has been a developer, and later CTO at Genesis Technology Partners – a Ukraine-based IT company, with lots of different projects, including the infamous VictoriaDates websites network.
VictoriaDates has been on our radar for some time, but we have never come to a decision to write about them until now. This network consists of a number of niche-based websites:
These websites offer people from wealthy regions of the world an opportunity to view profiles of girls from other regions, supposedly looking to date and marry outside their country. And all of them operate the same way – luring in people who are trying to find a relationship with a person from abroad using fake accounts and communication, draining the victims of their money, rejecting promised real-life meetings. There have been evidence that the websites use fake/unrelated profiles, or profiles of models who are not involved with the website itself, while the communication is handled by hired agents, not necessarily female. Their sole purpose is to keep you chatting(and paying, since communication is not free on these websites) for as long as possible before you feel tricked.
These websites have created more outrages in user reviews than Hily and Taimi will ever manage to.
Looking at VictoriaDates from our articles subjects point of view had brought new light on the complexity of fake reviews and ratings schemes. While Hily and Taimi, being mobile apps, concentrate on just spamming semi-conscious positive reviews, VictoriaDates websites have to deal with so called SERM – search engine reputation management.
We have been able to contact one of the ex-employees of the company, who wished to remain unnamed, but was willing to share some information with us. This person has given as details on the procedures implemented by VictoriaDates in order to boost their reputation online. The whole activity can be summarized a few steps:
- Creating fake profiles on review websites(like www.sitejabber.com and www.trustpilot.com), posting 5-star reviews and downvoting negative ones.
- Creating whole new review websites, sole purpose of which would be to give their own websites praise and recommendation (best10datingsitesreviews.com from the given list is still functioning)
- Creating reviews of other dating products, supposedly to harm their reputation.
And while Hily and Taimi have only started to use some of the procedures, we have strong reasons to believe that these apps have joined the Genesis Technology Partners portfolio. They are if not as fake as VictoriaDates, then definitely as shady.
However there is a problem with all shady business models, and that is that sooner or later people will realize that they are being fooled, and will go to the bank to get their money back. While not everyone does it, either because it affects your credit history, or because they don’t want to explain how they got in this situation in the first place, some people will. This procedure is called a Chargeback, and it creates a certain problem for the business. If a business reaches a high enough share of chargebacks compared to regular successful charges, their account with popular card issuers might get terminated or held for further investigation. So a business that is expecting a high amount of chargebacks automatically looks for a way to hide it. And the only way to hide it is to make these chargebacks appear as a smaller share that they really are. Just like with negative reviews where you have to add 5-star reviews so the end result would be over 4-star, for chargeback share you have to add successful undisputed charges so the share goes down, and is not noticed by the card issuer.
And our speculation is that this is how VictoriaDates is doing it as well. Using an advantage of having Genesis Technology Partners behind their backs, VictoriaDates can use some of the successful charges from other projects to decrease the share of disputed charges. We have been pointed out by the same ex-employee that VictoriaDates uses Renderwison LTD as a gateway for billing processing, while Renderwison LTD has a number of successful applications on the market that could potentially generate enough successful charges to hide VictoriaDates shady activities. This is, of course, a speculation and to prove anything further additional investigation has to take place.
And now comes the point where you might ask – “Well, good job doing this thing, but I don’t get it. What’s the big problem? People get screwed all the time, and this is just one example of how it’s done.” And the big problem is that YOU paid for it. Yes, we all paid for someone to improve this horrible money stealing machine.
Back in August 2016 Western NIS Enterprise Fund (WNISEF) made an investment in a company named Invest Limited, which is actually tightly connected with Genesis Technology Partners. WNISEF is an investment fund dedicated to investing into small and medium-sized companies in Ukraine and Moldova in order to boost their economy and give prominent projects in these countries a chance. The fund itself was funded by the US government through USAID – United States international development agency. Which means that every taxpayer in the US has made a contribution to a growing network of malpracticing dating websites and applications, which is harming these very people back. If this doesn’t get goosebumps from you we don’t know what will.
Appendix: alexpasykov LinkedIN job history
Dimitriy Bratina trustpilot profile