Fake Online Reviews – It’s Impossible to Fight Fair.
People have increasingly shopped online, rather than in stores, over the past decade, and the pandemic has accelerated that shift dramatically. Online scams are proliferating exponentially and fake online reviews are surging prompting unsuspecting consumers to spend money on products and services based on fake good reviews as they avoid businesses with fake negative reviews.
When it comes to fake online reviews altogether, whoever can spend the most money on them wins.
Recently, the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), began an inquiry into fake reviews on Amazon and Google to see whether they broke UK law by not doing enough 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 impossible to keep pace with the sheer volume fake reviews.
The FTC has a nearly impossible task; on a recent appearance on CNBC, FTC Chair Lina Khan revealed the FTC is woefully understaffed.
Since the FTC can’t handle its current caseload, nobody should wait for the FTC to take any serious action against fake online reviews no matter what they say.
What Drives Fake Reviews?
In traditional brick and mortar retailers, word of mouth has been a trusted source of new customers since the dawn of retail itself. If customers loved a restaurant’s food or a store’s abundant inventory and/or friendly service, satisfied consumers always spread the word. Online reviews had innocent origins to replicate that consumer behavior in the online shopping experience; If a customer loved a product, the fast free shipping, etc. ,the reviews were supposed to give potential customers an authentic insight into how other consumers felt about the food, the product or the service.
As is too often the case, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
In the cut-throat world of e-commerce, brands go to great lengths to acquire positive reviews and buy fake online reviews that hurts the competitors in their space. Why? Buying decisions are largely made by consumers based on what online reviews they read. Increasingly, fake online reviews are making the difference between customers buying a product with lots of good reviews instead of competitors plagued by loads of fake negative reviews. Reviews may be completely fake or written by friends and family or employees of a brand, who never disclose their connection to the business. They may also be incentivized—when people write positive reviews in exchange for money or free products.
The latter is a proven winner in boosting online sales. Just ask Amazon. Amazon is fighting a losing battle in trying to clamp down on fake online reviews that tilt their entire ecosystem in one direction or another. In the e-commerce world at large, a one star move in ratings – good or bad – can impact sales by as much as 10% per star.
Fake Reviewers are Hired on The Black Market
To get an idea of how desperate brands are for fake 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 coached employees to write these fake reviews using a VPN (virtual private network) so their IP address couldn’t be traced.
Sunday Riley got off easy; he settled the case with the FTC by agreeing not to write fake reviews going forward and didn’t pay a dime in fines or penalties.
Sunday Riley is an amateur who got caught. The smarter scumbag simply buys fake online reviews to improve their ratings and/or destroy their competitors.. Fake reviews can be purchased on Fiverr. Then there are all the WeChat, Snapchat, Telegram and Facebook groups specifically devoted to helping sellers find fake reviewers for their products or services.. Members of the group post positive reviews in exchange for free products or cash.
The Verge published an expose’ of these underground groups, reporting that sellers post pictures of products and invite members to post positive reviews in exchange for a refund through PayPal which means they end up with the product for free. 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 serial reviewers; The Verge found that some were making bank having posted thousands of reviews.
Officially, Amazon dropped the hammer on paid 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 of their dirty work off-platform. They find and communicate with fake reviewers all over the Internet and pay them for fake reviews. To Amazon, these fake reviewers look legitimate, since the reviewers buy the products through their Amazon accounts then go on to leave a review, just like an authentic reviewer does. To wit; since Amazon sees the criminal purchased the product, Amazon gives these bogus reviews their seal of approval with the vaunted “verified purchase” label, making them seem kosher when in fact they are not.
Fraudulent Reviews are Out of Control
Online review platforms are powerless to stop this speeding freight train running off the rails. They are obligated to keep up appearances and claim they’re working to address the problem but deep down they know they can’t or, what’s worse, won’t. Proof of that is all over this blog. 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. Bear in mind, Facebook is being sued for the wrongful death of a security guard in California at the hands of members of a Facebook group glorifying violence and destruction of property. So much for enforcing company policy…
Officially, Yelp discourages companies from generating fake reviews by slapping down profiles and slapping on a “consumer alert” warning on relevant reviews. The problem is that it is nearly impossible to determine if a review is fake in the first place. Then there’s unshakeable suspicion that Yelp actually profits from negative reviews. You be the judge.
Even with government agencies ramping up efforts by launching investigations into fake reviews, nobody should hold out any hope of relief. For a long time the UK’s CMA has been actively monitoring online reviews for suspicious activity that might be fake. If their 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. Yeah. Fat chance.
“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help. “- President Ronald Reagan
Given the scale of the problem and all of the sneaky ways that businesses connect with fake reviewers, government agencies and corporations are playing a game of Whack-A-Mole. When they take down a culprit, many more pop up.
Just a little more food for thought:
In the final analysis we see the only way to win this endless game is not to play. Simply opt-out of this futile arms race. How? Hire us to load up the search engines with lots of content about your business which pushes down negative results and everything else. You win because you are playing by your own rules, not the bullshit rules of big tech who end up making money either way if only because of all of the advertising revenue generated by all of this content they get from the public for free.
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