Feel comfortable buying Facebook Likes or Twitter followers? The practice is becoming more and more accepted, and fake social media ratings and reviews could hit 10 to 15 percent by 2014, according to research company Gartner.

In its recent report, "The Consequences of Fake Fans, 'Likes' and Reviews on Social Networks", the company says that trust in social media remains low, but could rise from single digits to as high as 33 percent by 2014.

Who to Trust

It may sound obvious, but people tend to trust those most like them and also people they know in real life. That partly explains why many people don't trust what they read when it comes to Amazon.com reviews, for example. However, people do trust websites that have lots of reviews.

A May 2012 online survey of 2,000 people from econsultancy.com found that companies with 50 or more reviews see nearly a 5 percent boost in conversions. The survey indicated that 31 percent said they use reviews to help them make a purchase. These numbers no doubt influence the rise of companies like SocialJump, who charge US$ 75 per thousand Facebook likes. 

While Gartner is realistic about how popular this practice is becoming on Twitter, Google+ and YouTube, the report cautions that companies should be aware of the risks associated with using these services. According to the report, any short term gains could nullified in the long run if the public finds out about the inflated numbers and starts viewing those companies as untrustworthy.

Regulators are Taking Notice

In 2011, the FTC levied a US$ 250,000 fine against Legacy Learning Systems for hiring marketers to post fake reviews on several websites. Gartner also cited campaigns by Sony, Wal-Mart, Nestle and Volkswagon as having been found to be misleading. Many of those campaigns were run by large marketing firms, but some companies were found to have been deleting negative comments on their social media sites.

In 2010, retailer Ann Taylor was suspected of giving out gift cards in exchange for favorable blog reviews. The case was investigated by the FTC, but no economic sanctions were filed. Additionally, the FTC settled with PR company Reverb communications the same year over fake reviews.

In a more connected world where people are interacting more than ever via some kind of mobile device, the report shows people still value real transparency and have little tolerance for deception. Let us know in the comments if you've come across some reviews or ratings you were certain were paid for

Editor's note: Check out our coverage of the advantages and pitfalls of "buying" fans, and why marketers are struggling to master social marketing