Don’t get fooled: the truth about fake reviews
Are you tired of being scammed by fake reviews on e-commerce sites? You’re not alone!
Fake reviews have become an all-too-common problem for online shoppers, and it can be hard to know who to trust. Let’s dive into the world of fake reviews and explore where they come from, who writes them, and how they impact consumers. We’ll also examine what governments and companies are doing to fix the problem, and how to protect yourself.
What are fake reviews?
Fake reviews are reviews that are posted on a website or platform with the intention of misleading others about the quality of a product or service. These reviews are often written by people who have never used the product or service, frequently in exchange for payment or complimentary products, and behind them are companies with a vested interest in promoting their own goods and services or harming the reputation of a competitor.
A January 2022 survey by SEO platform BrightLocal found that 77% of consumers regularly consider reviews when making a purchase, and 75% say that reading a positive review is the top factor that makes them feel good about a business. But maybe they are putting too much faith in those reviews.
According to fraudulent-review-detection service Fakespot, in 2020, around 42% of 720 million Amazon reviews were fake, with more scams found in the cheaper price range where customers aren’t looking for brand-name products. But in a market as flooded with options as Amazon, an additional star on Amazon could boost sales by up to 26%, according to The Intelligencer.
While we usually encounter fake reviews on Amazon, they exist on small business sites as well. Kay Dean of Fake Review Watch explained in Time Magazine how it’s more common than we think. “I’ve personally seen doctors, lawyers, dentists, contractors, wedding DJs, piano teachers, lactation consultants,” she says. “And I’m a single investigator using no automated tools, just my eyeballs and spreadsheets.”
On both large company sites and small businesses, fake reviews represent a huge problem. The Behaviouralist, a consulting group, discovered that fake reviews could cause online shoppers to overpay 12 cents for every dollar they spend. This can lead to consumers purchasing products or services that don’t meet their expectations while paying more than they need to.
Who writes these reviews?
Fake reviews are often written by people who are looking to make a quick buck. Companies, often based in Shenzhen or Chennai, use intermediaries to set up fake Facebook groups, Twitter accounts, or Telegram channels with names that attract users looking for free merchandise. These private groups bring in thousands of people willing to write a few sentences and take a couple of pictures in exchange for a product, and perhaps a small cash bonus. The fake reviews are then used on e-commerce sites like Amazon, Yelp!, or other sites.
In February 2021, the UK consumer advocacy group Which? published an investigation into how fake reviews for products available on Amazon Marketplace were being sold online in bulk. It found that many companies had been set up for the sole purpose of flooding Amazon sellers’ product listings with phony reviews.
The majority of people who participate in creating fake reviews are average consumers who are looking to earn a little extra cash or get freebies, and they are not aware of the consequences. As the market for fake reviews grows rapidly, it is now a career choice for some. Both companies and third-party agencies hire professional reviewers who can write a high volume of reviews and understand how to create them to get past algorithms looking for fakes.
Rajvardhan Oak, a Ph.D. student at UC Davis and an applied scientist in the Network Protection and Fraud Prevention team for Microsoft Ads, wanted to know more about how fake ads are created and did some research. According to Wired, Oak conducted a small survey and discovered that people made between $12 and a couple of hundred dollars per review, with agents earning $4 or $5 for each review they secured. While this doesn’t seem like a lot of money by US standards, it can be quite lucrative elsewhere.
Are we stuck with fake reviews?
The issue of fake reviews is a complex one, and there is no easy solution to eradicate it completely.
Major review platforms (including Amazon, Google, Meta, TripAdvisor, Trustpilot, and Yelp) are taking steps to keep deceitful reviews off their sites. Meta, for example, announced new policies in June to curb fake reviews in the US. An Amazon spokesperson told the Intelligencer that the company wants customers to “shop with confidence, knowing that the reviews they see are authentic and trustworthy.” To that end, they say they’ve taken down more than 200 million suspected fake reviews with the help of both AI and human staff. And in July, Amazon filed a complaint against the administrators of over 11,000 Facebook groups that recruit people for review scams, with the goal of finding out who runs the pages and shutting them down.
However, experts say that the battle against fake reviews cannot be won without turning up the heat to full blast and passing laws forcing companies to remove fraudulent reviews. To Beibei Li, an associate professor of IT and management at Carnegie Mellon University, it’s essential that governments — and consumers — put more pressure on review platforms to take responsibility and implement information transparency policies to discourage fake review writers. In the UK, new laws have been put in place to make fake reviews explicitly illegal and give the government more power to go after businesses that don’t take action. Meanwhile, in the US, the Federal Trade Commission is also urging further action after putting more than 700 businesses on notice last year.
However, it may be a losing battle. Fakespot’s Khalifah argues that if Amazon deleted all fake reviews, the company would lose hundreds of billions of shareholder value by revealing how compromised its review platform has become. This highlights the challenge of balancing the need to remove fake reviews with the potential financial impact on the platform.
How to avoid being tricked by fake reviews
When you go on a site to purchase a product or service, you might rely on reviews to choose the best option. You want to find a clean, safe hotel, not one with dirty carpeting and showers that don’t work. When you buy an appliance, you hope to find one that will keep working year after year. But with so many options, how do you sort through them all?
Here are a few quick tricks.
- Use the Chrome extension Fakespot. It will give each product a grade from A-F (with A being the best and F a failing grade), helping you determine if the reviews are likely accurate. (Note: just because the product has a D or F rating doesn’t mean it’s a bad product, just that it’s more likely than not to have fake reviewers).
- Check reviews on multiple sites. If you’re making a big purchase like a major appliance or going on an expensive vacation, it pays to check different review websites and even just Google the product name or hotel to see what people are saying.
- Check the one-star and two-star ratings. Often the low ratings tell the true story. If the low ratings tend to follow a pattern (e.g. product stopped working, it’s hard to use, etc.) pay close attention.
- Don’t rely on brand names. Some big brands you’ve used for years may rely on fake reviews to give them an edge. So just because you’ve heard of the company, that doesn’t mean the reviews are any more likely to be honest.
For more tips, Wired offers an extensive rundown of ways to spot fake reviews.