People have increasingly shopped online, rather than in stores, over the past decade, and the pandemic has accelerated that shift by five years. And yet, online scams abound. Fake reviews are especially pernicious and rampant, prompting unsuspecting consumers to spend money on products and services based on phony five-star reviews.
This week, a branch of the government in the United Kingdom, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), began an inquiry into fake reviews on Amazon and Google to see whether they have broken the law by not taking enough action to protect consumers. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been working to crack down on brands that that pay for fake reviews since 2019. But all of these agencies are finding it harder than you might expect to police the shady world of fake reviews.
What Drives Fake Reviews?
In the world of brick and mortar stores, one important way a brand could grow was by word of mouth; If customers loved a product, the hope was that they would recommend it to others. Online reviews were designed to replicate that experience. If a customer was intrigued by a product they saw, the reviews were supposed to give them an authentic insight into how other users of the product felt about it.
In the cut-throat world of e-commerce, brands go to great lengths to acquire positive reviews, since they could be the difference between customers buying their product instead of those of competitors. Reviews may be completely fake or written by employees of a brand, who do not disclose their affiliation. They may also be incentivized—when people write positive reviews in exchange for money or free products.
The latter has been proven to be effective at boosting sales. One study of 7 million reviews found that products with incentivized reviews had higher ratings (4.74 out of 5) than non-incentivized ones (4.36 out of 5). And that 0.38 difference could boost a product from the 54th percentile to the 94th percentile in ratings. So if you’re searching for top-reviewed products, the ones with incentivized reviews are likely to be ranked significantly higher than those with authentic reviews.
The Underground Market of Fake Reviewers
To get a glimpse into how desperate brands are for positive reviews, consider the case of Sunday Riley. In 2019, the FTC began investigating Sunday Riley when a former employee leaked emails that showed the company ordering staffers to make fake Sephora accounts and post glowing reviews of products. “It helps to make yourself seem relatable—like you know how hard acne is and you’ve tried everything, and this one actually works,” the email read. The company also urged employees to write these fake reviews on “virtual private networks” or VPNs so they weren’t traced back to the company.
Sunday Riley eventually settled the case with the FTC by agreeing not to write fake reviews going forward, but some FTC commissioners said that the company should have faced monetary consequences.
Sunday Riley is just the tip of the iceberg. In many other cases, brands simply buy positive reviews to improve their ratings. There are WeChat and Facebook groups specifically devoted to helping sellers find fake reviewers for their products or services on Amazon, Yelp, and Google. Members of the group post positive reviews in exchange for free products or cash.
In an investigation last year, The Verge explored these underground groups, reporting that sellers post pictures of products and invite members to post positive reviews in exchange for a refund through Paypal. Some sellers offer an additional $2 to $15 fee on top of the refund. In other words, writing fake reviews can be a lucrative income stream, particularly for prolific reviewers; The Verge found that some had posted upwards of 4,000 reviews.
Amazon banned incentivized reviews in 2016. It takes down suspicious reviews and has taken legal action against those who violate its policies. But sellers are able to avoid being caught by Amazon by doing all the illicit activity outside of the platform: They find and communicate with fake reviewers on Facebook and pay them for fake reviews on Paypal. To Amazon, these fake reviewers look legitimate, since the reviewers buy the products through their Amazon accounts then go on to leave a review, exactly the way an authentic reviewer would. Indeed, since Amazon sees they have purchased the product, it even gives these reviews a “verified purchase” label, making them seem even more legit.
The Struggle to Police Fakes
Some tech platforms caught up in the web of fake reviews say they’re working to address the problem. Facebook is trying to crack down on groups that connect sellers to fake reviewers, saying that they violate the company’s policies against fraud and deception. Last year, it took down three large U.S. groups focused on fake reviews. But it’s relatively easy for new groups to pop up in their place.
Yelp dissuades companies from generating fake reviews by placing a penalty on their ranking and a “consumer alert” warning on its review page, if it is proven to use fake or incentivized reviews. The problem is that it can be hard for Yelp determine if a review is fake in the first place. Amazon, for its part, has made it easier for consumers to leave legitimate reviews, including offering a “one-tap rating” button with no text required, which is designed to drown out fake reviews with real ones, but it is unclear whether this strategy really works.
Now, government agencies are stepping up their efforts by launching investigations into fake reviews. For a year now, the CMA in the United Kingdom has been actively monitoring for suspicious patterns of behaviors that offers clues that reviews might be fake, such as identifying a group of users that all seem to be reviewing the same set of random products at the same time. If the current investigation determines that Google and Amazon are not doing enough to track such trends and penalize brands that are soliciting fake reviews, the CMA may take formal action, like taking them to court.
But given the scale of the problem and the sneaky ways that sellers connect with fake reviewers, these agencies are playing a game of Whac-A-Mole. When they catch a brand, five more pop up elsewhere. For consumers, it can be very hard to parse real reviews from fake ones. So for now, it makes sense to be wary of these reviews and turn to trusted sources like Consumer Reports, the Wirecutter, and friends and family members who have actually used the product.