Attorney General Bonta Files Lawsuit Against Room Rental App for Purchasing Fake Online Reviews and Failing to Verify Listings

Tuesday, August 30, 2022
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Announces settlement with AppWinn for selling thousands of fake online reviews to Roomster to help it promote its app 

OAKLAND – California Attorney General Rob Bonta today, along with the Federal Trade Commission and five other state attorneys general, announced a lawsuit against Roomster, a roommate- and room-finding app, for violations of the False Advertising Law and Unfair Competition Law. The coalition alleges that Roomster purchased thousands of fake positive reviews to promote its app and fraudulently claimed that its room and roommate listings were “verified” and “authentic” despite featuring a myriad of scam listings. The coalition also announced a related settlement, filed with the court today, with Jonathan Martinez and his company AppWinn for selling Roomster fake reviews.

“Millions of hardworking Californians are struggling to find housing within their budgets. When people see affordable rooms for rent on highly rated apps like Roomster, they trust that these ‘verified’ listings are what they say they are,” said Attorney General Rob Bonta. “Unfortunately, Roomster hasn't been honest about the source of its popularity or its commitment to preventing fraud on its app. Roomster bought fake reviews and let scams proliferate, and consumers paid the price. We’ll always fight to hold companies accountable for trying to bilk hardworking Californians.”

Roomster runs a roommate- and room-finding app that advertises primarily private rooms in cities and towns across the globe. Roomster is geared toward lower-income renters for whom Roomster acknowledges that “every penny counts.” Roomster makes money by charging a subscription fee to potential renters for the ability to message potential roommates or landlords. In both the Google and Apple app stores, Roomster has thousands of five-star reviews, and it advertises itself as “trusted by the world’s best.”

In the lawsuit, the coalition alleges that Roomster engaged in false advertising and unfair business practices that harmed consumers who use its app. An investigation into Roomster found that the company purchased at least 20,000 fake positive reviews for its app in the Google and Apple app stores. Emails between Roomster co-founder John Shriber and Jonathan Martinez, owner of the review sales business AppWinn, show Shriber asking for “lots of 5 star IOS app reviews” and telling Martinez he “would like to be #1” in search results for people seeking roommates. Roomster also made representations that its app offered “millions of verified listings” and that its listings are “verified” and “authentic.” In reality, the app features a myriad of scam listings, and the company does not appear to do any sort of verification of posts.

In a related settlement, the coalition resolves allegations that Jonathan Martinez and AppWinn violated the False Advertising Law and Unfair Competition Law by promoting Roomster through fake online reviews posted in the Apple and Google app stores. As part of the settlement, Martinez must comply with strong injunctive terms to deter future misconduct and pay $100,000 to the states. 

Attorney General Bonta joins the FTC and the attorneys general of Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York in filing the lawsuit and the settlement. 

A copy of the lawsuit is available here. A copy of the settlement, which is subject to court approval, is available here.

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