Buyer Beware: Do Not Believe Everything You Hear on the Internet

October 23, 2015

The more popular online shopping and other online transactions have become, the more Internet users rely on online customer reviews in order to make informed purchasing decisions. Sites like Amazon provide a section for reviews in order to assist consumers in shopping with confidence. It is generally assumed that reviewers are genuine and truthful, and are writing the review in order to inform potential purchasers about the product or service. Unfortunately, the commissioning of paid, fake reviews that charade as testimonials from ordinary consumers— sometimes referred to as “astroturfing”—appears to be a growing practice.
Amazon filed suit on October 12, against 1,114 people who allegedly offered to be fake reviewers for hire at five dollars a review. Defendants “were selling their services on Fiverr.com, a website where people can sell such services as designing a logo, editing a resume, creating a fan web page or transcribing audio.” An Amazon investigation discovered 1,114 people on Fiverr allegedly offering to write fake Amazon reviews. Most offenders promised positive or five-star reviews. Allegedly, some offenders even offered to have the seller write the review, which the offender would then post.
“Amazon is suing for unspecified damages and an order forcing the users to stop writing fake reviews.” Amazon says that the offenders are liable for breach of contract for violating Amazon’s terms of service. Currently, the defendants are only identified by their online handles, but Amazon is working to determine their real names.
Amazon has not been the only big company affected. Companies like Yelp and TripAdvisor are also targets for merchants to easily post positive reviews of their own businesses. However, Amazon’s lawsuit appears to be one of the most forceful efforts so far by a major U.S. e-commerce company to fight against phony reviews. By suing the reviewers, Amazon is attempting to discourage this deceitful practice.
Companies have significant incentives to hire fake reviewers. According to Forrester Research, approximately forty-five percent of consumers consider product reviews when considering an online purchase. According to Nielsen Media Research, two-thirds of consumers trust online consumer opinions. For some companies, especially small businesses, it may even be more economical to pay for positive reviews than to buy advertising.
Amazon, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other sites have attempted to prevent the planting of fake reviews. Amazon spokesperson, Julie Law, says that Amazon continues to use numerous mechanisms to detect and remove the small fraction of reviews that violate guidelines. Amazon terminates accounts that abuse the system and the company takes legal action. Amazon, Yelp, and TripAdvisor use computer algorithms and investigator teams to search reviews and delete suspicious entries.
Another way that Amazon attempts to thwart phony reviews is by allowing only consumers who have purchased something on Amazon (“verified customers”) to write a review. However, offenders have found creative ways around this; for example, by using a promo code to get the product for free or by offering to receive an empty envelope from a seller to make it look as if the person had actually bought the product. Thus, apparently, even “verified” reviews can be hacked.
Yelp reveals that approximately twenty-five per cent of the reviews it receives are fake and never published. According to Yelp director of business outreach, Darnell Holloway, Yelp places a “consumer alert” badge on a company’s Yelp site for ninety days when suspicious reviews are found. This warns consumers that reviews may be deceptive. If the problem continues, Yelp removes all of that company’s reviews.
Gartner Research estimates that approximately ten to fifteen percent of all online reviews are fake and experts predict that fraudulent reviews are not going away anytime soon. So far, legal recourse has been uncommon. However, in April of 2015, Amazon sued several websites that offered to produce positive reviews. According to that lawsuit, most of those sites have now closed and Amazon has “identified and taken action” against sellers who used those sites to get fake reviews. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has filed several suits because of fake reviews as well. For example, in 2011, a company selling a popular series of guitar-lesson DVDs was made to pay $250,000 to settle FTC charges that “it deceptively advertised its products through online affiliate marketers who falsely posed as ordinary consumers or independent reviewers.” Also in 2013, “the New York attorney general’s office settled cases with nineteen companies and secured $350,000 in penalties for fake reviews.” During the investigation, the Attorney General’s office found that “many of these companies used techniques to hide their identities, such as creating fake online profiles on consumer review websites and paying freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe for $1 to $10 per review.” This production of fake reviews “violated multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.”
In the current suit, Amazon is targeting the actual writers of the reviews. Amazon’s suit, filed in King County Superior court in Seattle, stated that fake reviews mislead Amazon customers and tarnish Amazon’s brand. According to Jenny Sussin, a research director with Gartner research, this lawsuit may help to slow the flow of fake reviews by instilling fear in people that they could be caught and have to pay a fine.
Amazon explained that, “While small in number, these reviews can significantly undermine the trust that consumers and the vast majority of sellers and manufacturers place in Amazon, which in turn tarnishes Amazon’s brand.” Sussin says that lawsuits need to be filed against the manufacturers who are hiring people to create the fake reviews because this is a deceptive practice. Also, while sites like Fiverr enable manufacturers to contract for fake review services, manufacturers are also carrying out actions that are inherently wrong.

While companies like Amazon and Yelp are taking measures to rid their sites of fake reviews and deter potential fake reviewers, consumers should also take on the responsibility of carefully and critically reading and evaluating reviews.

Once again, we are reminded that our parents were right when they said, “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”