The UK and USA consumer market regulators plan to take action against the dangers of bogus ratings, but how have fake online reviews gained such a foothold?
Most of us already know that there exists an entire dishonest industry dedicated to trashing genuine products and services while upvoting fakes and frauds.
Sadly, it’s the way of the world in an age where the hourly Amazon transactions of $17 million have resulted in counterfeit goods rising to the top of search engines simply because product reviews are a huge part of the equation.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) in the UK is set to take a hard swing at this business-to-consumer issue while the USA’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned big players to do more to stop what is seriously undermining online commerce. 🧐
“Preventing online exploitation of consumers”
Fake reviews serve only to feed search engines erroneous cues which, in turn, skew product/services rankings. This continual surfacing of “bad actors” has helped create a worldwide web of deceit in which popularity doesn’t equal quality.
Whether it’s Amazon, eBay, TripAdvisor, Facebook, Google, Wish, Alibaba or any other marketplace, they all suffer the same problem: lies and bribes, defamation and deceit, and of course, terrible AI algorithms.
UK Government Consultation
With the aim of boosting competition and ending consumer rip off, it could become a criminal offence to publish or commission false testimony either for yourselves or against a competitor.
“The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) also has powers to tackle undesirable market wide practices that are in breach of the Unfair Trading Regulations. The CMA shares this power to enforce with TSS.”
History of Fake Reviews Online
Although online reviews appeared around 1999, the internet as we know it now has only existed for about 15 years. With each update and iteration of online review technology comes the exploitation of loopholes as well as tactics like review gating, incentives, and obviously, those bloody shills. 🤥
Business owners today can respond to reviews. That’s good. But the platforms’ monopolies have a hold on your attention along with their own unique review systems. They influence your purchasing decisions.
Amazon Third Party Sellers and Counterfeit Goods
Amazon opened up to third party sellers in 2000, consequently allowing cheap Chinese counterfeit products to flood the marketplace. Amidst the tidal wave of competitively-priced electronic goods came sellers’ determination to push this knock-off nonsense to the top of online shopping listings.
Exploding batteries, melting phone chargers and pharmaceuticals of dubious origin have genuinely destroyed legitimate businesses and put real people in danger. In 2018, Europol intercepted 13 million doses of counterfeit drugs including opioids and heart medications worth over $180 million.
Big Brands Say “Bye Bye”
Big brands like Nike no longer even sell on Amazon, yet Nike products can be found on Amazon. They’re all fake… and it’s undermining the reputation of Nike. Such products are regularly seized by eagle-eyed USA import customs officers. 🦅
The 9 to 5 Business of Sock Puppets and Click Farms
Shill-styled deceptions have evolved alongside social media, with spammy agents supplying false positive or negative reviews at a price. The Which? Investigates podcast discovered that a simple Google search turned up the chance to bag ten fake reviews for as little as £6.50 – less than a dollar each. 🥸
Fraud for Hire
These easily-created accounts not only publish unfounded praise and lies, but upvote or downvote particular reviews en masse. “Click farms” are engaged by domestic online marketing and reputation companies looking to outsource their own clandestine requirements as cheap foreign labour. 👤
In the background, a never-ending game of cat and mouse between marketplace and offender ensues, with the online shopping site you and I are browsing constantly scrambling to quash this rotten industry. In 2021, Amazon blocked more than 10 billion suspected listings.
Sponsored Influencers Are Pushing Bad Businesses
There’s a new eCommerce site on the scene called Temu. Young Temu has not been playing nice with the other kids. Temu has aggressively gobbled huge chunks of the U.S. marketplace and become the most-downloaded app by offering dirt cheap prices and free delivery/returns on all orders.
The strategy is not to be profitable, but to undermine competitors. 👀
Chinese Marketplaces Undercut on Price
Temu is reportedly losing an average of $30 per order, simply because it is buying up the market itself and pushing their message through YouTube and TikTok by either paying influencers directly (up to $1000 for a video) or having regular people join a too-good-to-pass-on referral program (it deposits free credits/gifts in their account on signup). 💰
If that’s not enough, get this. Temu is a Chinese company collecting data on citizens through its app, abusing its employees, selling shoddy products (that undoubtedly infringes intellectual property) and possibly using slave labour. 👎
You can bet that fake reviews factor into Temu product listings.
Brushing: The Evolution of Fake Reviews
A more recent development within the fake review sphere is the exploitation of an Amazon loophole that makes certain fake reviews look almost unquestioningly bonafide.
The phenomenon of brushing is particularly insidious, in which a “verified purchase” is recorded by Amazon simply by having a seller mail an empty package to an address they have access to. Basically, it’s a conspiracy (as in between at least two people) and a tactic the seller uses to purchase their own items through fake accounts with the intention of writing fake reviews.
FFS… it’s just totally out of control. 🥴
Spotting Fake Reviews
The vast majority of us over-analyse reviews on all kinds of things we purchase – hotels, holidays, travel, electronics and goods, medical and cosmetic services – and yet we’re still being fooled.
Suspicious Skin Clinic
In 2019 I visited a private skin clinic for an initial consultation. The business had gathered an enormous amount of positive reviews. Everything seemed okay until the part where they offered me a 10% discount on any treatment if I were to leave a “good” review in advance.
Other problems arose such as high-pressure selling with regards to a bunch of ridiculously overpriced and useless products that I wasn’t interested in. The point is, I was there because of the reviews of others the business had obtained in an obviously underhand manner. 😑
Here’s the flip side: as a service provider, I’ve received fake Google reviews from users I had never done business with. Presumably, it was an attack by a competitor. The sad part is that Google’s algorithms are wildly miscalibrated, resulting in the wiping out of genuine reviews while the fake negative reviews are allowed to stay.
Look at the Review History for Google Users
Fake Google reviews are often executed lazily and therefore easily spotted. Obvious when you know what to look for!
A cursory glance will usually reveal an unlikely digital footprint under the public review history for certain users, giving the impression they traveled the globe in a few days reviewing different businesses.
For example, the period during the middle of the pandemic when international flights were grounded made globe-trotting quite impossible. 🌐
What Makes a Review Suspicious?
My definition of “suspicious review” is as follows:
- The review is about a different product (bait and switch)
- More than a few reviews appeared on the same day at the very beginning of the review history
- Poor grammar and spelling
- Generic pandering/praise, repetitive words, repetitive language, repetitive sentence structure
- Overwhelming number of reviews compared to competitors
- No profile photo, no full name
Browser Extensions to Spot Fake Reviews
As the world of counterfeit goods continues to revolve, tech firms and developers are helping consumers play catch up with lots of free tools to help assess shopping listings. 🐱🐭
Here are just a few resources you could try as part of a quick analysis on suspicious product listings:
- Review Index
“We have the first category which is bot generated reviews. So a computer programme is spitting out fake reviews. The second category is human-generated fake reviews. There are reviewers that their daily job is just to write reviews… we have seen so-called human armies being used to write fake reviews, and usually those kinds of service providers, we call them fraud farms.”
How Consumers are Manipulated into Writing (or Not Writing) Reviews
You’ve heard of TrustPilot. The question is, can we actually trust businesses partnered with them? If you don’t know, TrustPilot operates different levels of service but really comes down to either the Free Plan or the paid Standard Plan.
TrustPilot Review Gating
While businesses operating under TrustPilot are not allowed to delete negative reviews, the monthly cost of the Standard Plan starts at £199, and because of this, a company may very well be manipulating who leaves reviews, whereas companies operating the Free Plan may not be doing that. It’s called review gating.
TrustPilot Standard Plan Review Verification
Another part of TrustPilot worth mentioning is that customer reviews that were written by invitation from the company are automatically verified. This is blatant bias from the business.
When consumers are unhappy, they’re more likely to jump through hoops in order to lodge a complaint. Bad product and bad service is the core motivating factor behind publishing a review, and this is where companies are careful about who gets to actually leave a review and who does not.
Let’s imagine a seriously pissed-off customer writes a damning review of a product of service on TrustPilot. The business can flag that organic negative review for removal, and it will get removed because it’s a paid service.
Massage Therapist Sexually Abused Client in Her Home
Review gating is rife across all industries. I recently listened to a podcast in which a male massage provider sexually abused a woman in her home. He was a top-rated massage provider on the app he advertised on and the complainant’s review was mysteriously removed. 🤔
When unqualified tradespeople, ripoff merchants, and criminals are able to enter your life on the strength of some positive internet testimony you assumed was genuine, it’s time to take a serious look how this bullshit is being enabled. 😕
Conclusion: Guilty until Proven Innocent
Under the new UK laws, the CMA will gain new powers to tackle subscription traps and fake reviews. “The Competition and Markets Authority will be able to enforce consumer law directly, rather than having to go through a court process,” the government said.
With the power to sanction companies refusing to comply with investigations and remedies, penalties worth up to 1% of a business’ annual worldwide turnover can be imposed for non-compliance with the CMA’s investigative measures, and up to 5% of annual turnover for non-compliance with remedies. 🏻
That’s all well and good, but when the likes of Amazon is able to earn $222 billion in revenue in one year from online stores alone, a lot of people will do whatever it takes to get just a slither of that pie. 💸
The old maxim goes, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” Unfortunately, when it comes to any online product listing, we probably need to start saying “Although it doesn’t even look suspicious, it probably is.”