This is a brain-dump of what I believe is an online scam of three review sites. But maybe it’s perfectly legal. I don’t know, you tell me. I am just going to write down my findings.
I stumbled upon a set of review sites that provide scammy “reviews” and steer potential buyers to specific products. I don’t know if this is legal, certainly not ethical, but I also don’t know where to go from here. So, for now, I decided to write a blog post about it.
This one if going to be really long. I am sorry in advance. There is a tl;dr at the end if you want to skip the fluff.
Backstory – the first review site
One day, when I searched for a self-tanner, I stumbled upon a website called SelfTanning.com. A self-tanner is a lotion or mousse that you can wipe on your skin and it makes you look tan for 5-7 days. There are no known side effects, it’s considered safe, and a lot of people do it. The only downside is, some self-tanners smell “ok”, some make you look orange instead of tan, some dry patchy or stain all your clothes. It’s a big market out there, and it’s easy to get lost in it.
Selftanning.com is ran by a nice blonde lady who posts Youtube videos of her reviewing all the self-tanners out there. Exactly what I needed. She considers price, smell, color, how long each application lasts and she even had a page for the top 10 tanners for 2018, then she rates them on a scale of 5. Her top recommendation, Tanceuticals Extra Dark, was available an Amazon. I checked the reviews and bought a bottle for myself.
It worked great! The smell was great, the color was uncannily real, and it lasted for a good 7 days. I was pleased. I used up that bottle and ordered another one. Then, once I used up that one too, I ordered a third one.
The third bottle was runny, watery, and I sent it back to Amazon. I got a refund and ordered another brand that Amazon recommended for me. It wasn’t as good as Tanceuticals, but it was fine, and I’ve been using it ever since.
Three years later
It’s 2020, and I am in search for a good face cream that contains retinol. Without going into too much detail, retinol can be purchased with a prescription, and there are also OTC versions available. It’s one of the few ingredients that are proven to be efficient in keeping your skin in good shape if you continuously use it for years. There are a lot of products out there, and some are better than others. Some are completely useless. It’s a big market out there, and it’s easy to get lost in it.
I google “creams with retinol,” click on the top result: Retinol.com, and immediately get a strange feeling.
Retinol.com and Selftanning.com are the same review sites
But they are not the same. The sites’ structure is the same. They both have hundreds of video reviews, but the reviews are posted by different women. Products are reviewed the same way: price, how well it works, texture and feel. Both have a submenu for the top 10 products for the year.
I watched a few of the videos and they sound … legit. The woman’s tone doesn’t sound scripted, and she makes sense in the details she mentions. But then I notice the dates the videos were published: every 1-7 days.
Now, in case of self-tanning lotions I can see how 7 days are enough to test a product. But with facial creams, you need a good 30-90 days for each test. So these videos are fake. Or are they? She sounds honest and knowledgeable.
Who is sponsoring these sites?
I compared the “top” products on the two review sites and immediately saw an overlap. Three companies products received the highest ratings: Tanceuticals, Skinceuticals, and Skin Drop.
I searched for “Skin Drop” and “Skinceuticals”, and found a third website: Cellulite.com. Another website with the same structure, and same type of reviews by yet another woman. But this time I also noticed something else: the backdrop in some of the videos of Retinol.com and Cellulite.com were the same. I also noticed that over time they rotated some of the “review experts” and hired new ones.
They don’t trash other products, but I also don’t believe these are honest reviews. In case of Cellulite creams (which are a complete scam, by the way, Cellulite creams don’t work), you would need to use them for weeks before you see results. And the thing with retinol is, it can be highly irritating to the skin. I am hesitant to even try one, let alone a hundred. What I am trying to say is, these women are very likely not talking about their own experiences, but they make it seem like they are.
Each of the review sites has an “About” page that contains a picture of one (or more) women who are the Chief Editors and reviewers. Selftanning.com is ran by a group of women. I googled each of the names, but couldn’t find any of the matching name + face combinations.
Retinol.com is allegedly ran by a Jessica Jones. I did not even bother to attempt to google that name, I knew the results would be saturated with images from the Marvel show. Cellulite.com is ran by a women whose name is Elizabeth Adams. I did try to google her .. couldn’t find anything.
Each site has a “Contact Us” page as well. They recommend that you write them via email, but they also list a mailing address.
These addresses look fairly alike, no? Turns out, they are various UPS stores around the greater Phoenix area. I also tried to look at the ICANN’s registrar to find out who do these addresses belong to. They are all registered to and live on godaddy.com’s servers and no other names were provided.
Skin Drop and Tanceuticals
I pinged all five URL’s. Tanceuticals.com and Skindrop.com came back from the same IP.
ping tanceuticals.com -c 1 PING tanceuticals.com (188.8.131.52): 56 data bytes 64 bytes from 184.108.40.206: icmp_seq=0 ttl=55 time=139.663 ms ping skindrop.com -c 1 PING skindrop.com (220.127.116.11): 56 data bytes 64 bytes from 18.104.22.168: icmp_seq=0 ttl=55 time=71.291 ms
- Selftanning.com, Retinol.com, and Cellulite.com and three sites offering seemingly independent product reviews.
- The sites’ reviews are detailed, but posted all too often to believe that the reviews are based on real-life experiences.
- The women posting these reviews seem to be local to the site. Their names (associated with this market) don’t appear anywhere else. In some cases in the past they occasionally switched the reviewers to new women.
- The three sites’ top recommendations are products from two companies: Tanceuticals and Skin Drop.
- Tanceuticals and Skin Drop are affiliated with each other.
- Nowhere on Selftanning.com, Retinol.com, and Cellulite.com is it mentioned that they are affiliated with Tanceuticals on Skin Drop.
- Selftanning.com, Retinol.com, and Cellulite.com, Skin Drop, and Tanceuticals’ physical addresses are UPS boxes around the Greater Phoenix Area.
- All five URL’s are registered and hosted on Godaddy.com. Tanceuticals.com and Skindrop.com are on the same server.
In my opinion, at the very least the reviews are dishonest and the top products are purposefully listed to steer potential buyers to two particular sites (which are also affiliated, so, same company). This by itself is not against the law, I believe. But this whole thing feels scammy to me. Maybe some of you can offer some insight.