Every so often you come across a commercial website offering a great price on a service you’re interested in. But if it’s not a big brand how do you know it’s a legitimate company?
Here are some things you can look at to make your own mind up.
1 Generic Email Address
If a company is established enough to be running a website, an office location and have collected a portfolio of satisfied clients, it’s unlikely that they would use a free, generic email address.
I started out thinking this wasn’t a big deal, maybe a new company might use gmail etc; but I spoke to some freelancers. They gave me a resounding “no”, while gmail might be the email tool you use, you want a business specific email address as soon as possible.
2 Invalid Office Address
The screenshot at right shows an office address listing that is incomplete – Boulevard Haussmann is 2.53 kilometres long without a building name or street number this address is incomplete. This image was taken from a site that has now been taken down because the business was a fraud.
If a company provides only a PO Box or the address is a rented office space I wouldn’t automatically think the company was not legit – but it would be a red flag. And the bigger the company was claiming to be the bigger the red flag.
This is relatively easy to check – put the address as given into Google and see whether the company comes up listed at that address from other sources (ie; not the company’s own website). Or use Google Maps, if the country the company claims to be in allows Google Street View you’ll see the building. (Try putting 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway into Google maps to see how this works).
3 Inconsistencies on the Website
These two screenshots are both taken from the same website;
I’ve also seen examples where the company claims to have thousands of employees but only lists one small office – I know with remote working on the rise this is increasingly possible but it’s not likely. And if a company has done it successfully there will be articles about how famous they are for having a remote or virtual workforce.
Legitimate companies work hard to make sure the information on their website is up to date and correct. Gaping errors like this cast doubt on the credibility of the company.
4 External Inconsistencies
It’s always interesting to check when a company, or the company’s domain name was registered. In the case of Asia Expat Guides, who claim to have been operating for four years, the domain name asiaexpatguides.com was only registered in February 2013. Given that the target audience is geographically distributed it seems unusual that they waited three years to create a website.
For many countries the company registration database is open and free for a basic search so it’s relatively easy to check that as well. The Singapore business registrar allows you to search for registration results, but you’d have to pay to see a detailed report.
Here is the result of a search on “Asia Expat Guides” from the Singapore business registrar, the first four digits of the registration number correspond to the year of registration.
5 Fake Twitter Presence
Most companies are now active on Twitter and a legitimate twitter account will have;
- a branded avatar (not the newbie egg)
- regular tweets
- a following that matches the company size
- real followers
The first three any company can solve rather quickly, the last one they cannot fake. And it turns out it’s not that difficult to figure out who are real followers – and there’s a tool out there which makes it even easier. Here are the results for AsiaExpatGuides;
Probably everyone has a follower or two that score as fake. But 82%? The only way you can build such a poor quality following is to buy followers. In this case 1300 of them.
Again a legitimate, reputable company should not be doing this.
6 Zero LinkedIn Presence
LinkedIn has become the social media platform of choice for professionals, the proportion of people using LinkedIn from any one company will vary per industry and per country – here’s a breakdown of user demographics from 2012.
So if a company only states that they are a “global finance service company” I’d expect thousands of LinkedIn search results (remember the search results will include people who no longer work at the company; my current company returns 6x the number of current employees). For a small professional services company that states it has one or two hundred employees and that hasn’t been operating that long the number might be closer to 1x existing employees. Check – but be aware that unless you’ve changed your account settings those people will be able see that you’ve viewed their profile.
7 Fake Customer or Partner Lists
If you have doubts about a site look for customer references or lists of partner companies, and consider contacting those companies. Large companies will be doing business with thousands of other companies so sometimes it’s hard to research but I have always been happy to looking into companies that use our name on their site – it’s part of protecting our company name.
In all the enquiries I have checked it has been a minority that turn out to be legitimate partners, no more than 20%.
8 Suspicious Testimonials
One way for a company to gain credibility is with customer testimonials, but what if those testimonials are fake?
I wrote about my research into the testimonials on the Asia Expats Guide site a while ago. When I first looked at their site there were many testimonials which seemed a little off; perhaps it was a student from Pakistan using very American slang, or that the photo didn’t really look like someone with the amount of experience stated in the testimonial. So I decided to dig.
I looked at Linkedin, not everyone uses it but I found that among sixty testimonials not one name matched a profile and also had a photo match. So I did an image search; just using the URL of the actual image in Google’s image search. And found that most of the images used by Asia Expat Guides were lifted from other public sites. This only works where the image is very similar or identical to an image used somewhere else on the internet.
So Brent Keith’s image has a URL http://asiaexpatguides.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/test61-148×117.jpg, but an image search shows that he turns up a quite a different site, with the name Grant Hallstrom.
You can check the other examples of Asia Expats creating fake testimonials in my earlier blog post.
I really encourage everyone to be smart about this, it’s easy to create an online presence for a fake company, but there will be cracks in the facade, and there are easy ways to check. If you can’t find good resources supporting a company’s reputation take your money somewhere else.