Faking reviews for seedy ICOs used to be a lucrative little business. 

On supposedly impartial review sites like ICObench, for instance, startups were once offered glowing reviews on their products for prices of up to $800, according to ReutersAnd one expert listed on that site, Jeremy Khoo, tells Decrypt that he was offered bribes of up to 5 ETH, around $2,500 at the time. 

That was around June, 2018. 

But things changed with November’s ruinous bear market and the accompanying government crackdown on the ICO industry, the primordial soup from which shady startups willing to take kickbacks emerged. And ether, the most popular cryptocurrency among ICOs, lost over 50 percent of its value, sinking from around $210 to $90. 

Worse still, the dawn of the “IEO” moved the running of token sales into the purview of cryptocurrency exchanges, whose blessing obviated the need for fawning guff from third-party reviewers. 

Now, the reviewers are making a pittance. 

“Are you aware about ICObench expert rating system?” begins a conversation between a startup and a prospective “reviewer” seen by Decrypt, concerning one of the most widely trafficked crypto review sites in the space. “If an expert gives you a 5 star rating your score will increase. I have direct contacts with top experts and I can help you with a 5 star rating from a top expert now.”

And the price for this largesse? 

“0.65 ETH,” said the salesman. “It will be a post payment. You can pay after the rating is done.”

0.65 ETH is roughly $119, a mere eighth of the sort of prices once offered on the platform. 

ICObench was long the go-to for investors looking to suss out prospective buys. Boasting hundreds of verified "experts" and some 620,000 views a month (according to SimilarWeb), it exuded an aura of trustworthiness. But many of the experts, it turned out, could be bought at low prices—and now, they can be bought at even lower prices.

The smoother operators can hope to make a little more, but barely. A post on bitcointalk.com, written back during the November bear run, shows one “expert,” Douglas Lyons, settling for 1 ETH ($210) after his original offer of 3 ETH ($630) fell through.  

One “expert” on the site, who wished to remain anonymous—fearing reprisals from “Russians”—agreed that the once audacious prices are sagging. “Sure, they dropped prices,” he said.

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Still, business is at least trying to boom. “Robert,” the review fluffer whose messages were passed on to us, provided a link to a list of supposed “experts” on the ICObench website who are apparently still willing to jazz up their, er, impartial reviews for a small fee. 

We reached out to several of the experts on that list. One, Khoo, said that the market had dried up entirely, at least for him. “To be frank, with the decline in ICOs for retail buyers, there hasn’t been any such offers anymore,” he said, saying he had never accepted them anyway. 

Another disavowed the website, but insisted that (discounted) offers were still coming through, via reps from dubious organizations who gently probe whether, perchance, he would be willing to bump up their rating for a healthy kickback. 

“Yesterday, two Russians contacted me to jack up the votes,” he said. “I find this completely out of order.”

Perhaps the money wasn’t good enough. 

Update: ICObench responded for comment: "We have zero-tolerance for sales of ratings. We always encourage our community members to report any abnormal activity or information on the paid review. Dozens of experts were already revoked for violating the rules."

Photo via [cipher] on Flickr.