Any smart consumer looks to online reviews before deciding whether to patronize a business or purchase a product. In fact, consumers read an average of 10 online reviews before they trust a business. Unfortunately, customer review fraud schemes skew search results on marketplaces like Amazon, misleading customers and disadvantaging honest businesses.
With billions of online product listings, it can be tough to know which are worthy of their five stars and which got their high ratings through illegitimate means. And with 57 per cent of consumers only using businesses that have four or more stars, this fraud can hurt those who don’t cheat.
Types of Customer Review Fraud
Review fraud schemes center around fake reviews that do not reflect the reviewers’ honest and impartial opinions about the products. It sounds simple but customer review fraud takes many forms.
Learn how i-Sight case management software can help you perform better fraud investigations here.
Paid and Incentivized Reviews
One of the most common types of review fraud is paying for good reviews. Companies pay consumers, usually found on freelance job sites or Facebook groups, for their positive reviews. The reviewer may or may not have actually purchased and used the product. They may even be paid to simply mark positive reviews as “helpful,” a criterion many shoppers use to filter reviews on Amazon.
Sometimes the review writers do not receive payment but an incentive instead, usually reimbursement for part or all of the product’s cost.
Sellers who rely on customer review fraud value both quality and quantity of reviews. While having 5-star reviews is important, they also need a high number of reviews in order to appear relevant, which will land their product on the first page of search results.
Review Reuse Fraud
While some consumers are in on the review scam, others have their legitimate positive reviews used without their consent.
Called review reuse fraud, sellers commandeer a product page with many real positive reviews and change the product photo and description. Customers have no idea that the review they wrote for a product they actually loved has been “exploited to mislead shoppers and to give the swapped-in product an unfair advantage over its hardworking competition.”
An easy way to spot this is to look back at reviews from years past. If you are shopping for shampoo but the reviews seem to be for a hair dryer, the seller is probably engaging in review fraud.
Similarly, sellers list a product as a “variation” of another product with a high rating in order to confuse potential buyers.
For example, a seller may list a wireless phone charger as a “variation” of a pair of headphones. All products under the same listing show the same customer rating so even though the products are two totally different things, the less popular product gets boosted in shoppers’ search results.
The most complex type of review fraud is known as brushing. In this scheme, sellers steal the names and addresses of verified shoppers on online marketplaces, setting up a new account with that information.
They then “buy” their own products and leave positive reviews for them under the other peoples’ names. The unsuspecting victims receive mysterious packages that they never ordered, containing everything from the actual products “they” reviewed to random objects the seller had lying around. People who have bought items from less-than-legitmate sellers before are the most likely targets.
While receiving free packages might not sound bad at first, victims of brushing scams have their personal information compromised. Fraudsters may sell their victims’ data or use it to steal their identities on other platforms.
RELATED: 5 Tips to Spot Fake Customer Reviews
Combatting Review Fraud
Customer review fraud causes problems for both shoppers and companies that play by the rules. By inflating ratings through illegitimate means, fraudulent sellers are rewarded with higher rankings in searches and in turn, more sales. With nearly 30 billion dollars’ worth of customer spending influenced by online reviews, review fraud can be lucrative.
Federal Trade Commission
The US Federal Trade Commission has been cracking down on review fraud and recently brought its first successful case against it. Cure Encapsulations was fined $12.8 million for using paid, fraudulent reviews to advertise their products on Amazon.
The company paid a website called amazonverifiedreviews.com to keep the rating for their garcinia cambogia weight-loss supplement above 4.3 out of 5 stars. Unfortunately, the supplement’s active ingredient not only shows zero proof of being able to suppress appetite and block fat cells from forming as it promises, but has been linked to liver failure.
In addition to their fine, Cure Encapsulations was required to inform Amazon and customers who bought the product about all of their paid reviews. They are also forbidden from making any “weight-loss, appetite-suppression, fat-blocking, or disease-treatment claims for any dietary supplement, food, or drug” unless the company has “competent and reliable scientific evidence in the form of human clinical testing” to support its claims.
British Standards Institute
In the UK, the British Standards Institute has created a voluntary standard designed to combat review fraud. The standard’s guidelines instruct businesses on how to moderate reviews on their websites and how to deal with fake reviews. These include:
- Verifying that reviews come from real, genuine customers
- Ensuring that ratings reflect the written comments
- Allowing moderators and regular customers to “flag” suspicious reviews
- Keeping records of illicit reviews for at least a year after their removal from the website
Amazon is the world’s largest online retailer, which means it is also one of the places you are most likely to encounter customer review fraud. With millions of listings on their site, it is hard to moderate every single one.
However, Amazon is taking steps towards eradicating fake customer reviews by filing lawsuits against review-selling websites and freelance job sites, the source of many fraudulent reviews.
A spokesperson for Amazon said that the company “invests significant resources to protect the integrity of reviews in our store because we know customers value the insights and experiences shared by fellow shoppers. Even one inauthentic review is one too many. We have clear participation guidelines for both reviewers and selling partners and we suspend, ban, and take legal action on those who violate our policies.”
Whether you are an online shopper or a fraud investigator, many online tools have been created to help you spot fake customer reviews. ReviewMeta, Fakespot, and others use AI to determine the reliability of reviews of products and services. Insert the URL to see how likely it is that a product has fake reviews based on criteria like length of reviews, balance of ratings and rating trends.
Using tools like these can make quick work of a fraud investigation. Download our free cheat sheet for more tips for conducting online investigations.
While customer reviews used to be a trusted source of information when online shopping, review fraud has misled millions of customers into buying inferior products. Luckily, governments and online retailers are taking steps to combat customer review fraud to the benefit of shoppers and rule-abiding companies alike.