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Amazon shoppers misled by fake reviews, says Which?

Written by: Emma Lunn
Unscrupulous sellers are using bribery, hacking and gaming the system to mislead online shoppers with fake reviews.

A Which? investigation found dodgy vendors are using a range of tactics to beat Amazon’s security systems regarding product reviews.

The consumer champion scrutinised thousands of listings with the help of an Amazon expert to uncover how features designed to make the website more user-friendly are being abused on, what it says is, “a grand scale”.

Which? also reviewed almost 90 reports of issues with fake reviews it has received in recent weeks – including sellers offering buyers bribes of cash and gift vouchers in return for dishonestly boosting a review to five stars.

A tactic employed by some sellers is the hacking of genuine Amazon accounts to post fake reviews – in one case a single account was used to post thousands of fake reviews.

Fakers are also exploiting an Amazon feature called “product variation”, which is used by legitimate sellers to group reviews for the same product in one place when it is available in different sizes and colours.

However, unscrupulous sellers are creating false variations, allowing them to artificially multiply the number of positive reviews attributed to a product while evading detection.

Examples of fake reviews

Which? found a pair of SDFLAYER headphones with 40 different meaningless colour variations (‘cxas021’ / ‘cxas014’ / ‘cxas012’, etc.) that enabled the seller to coordinate a steady stream of fake five-star reviews without Amazon’s systems flagging any suspicious activity on the product. Worryingly, this SDFLAYER item topped the headphones search listings at the start of June 2019.

Another feature, known as “product merging,” is used by legitimate sellers to bring together the reviews of similar items under one listing – tidying up their online shops and making it easier for shoppers to find all relevant reviews in one place.

However, Which? found examples of sellers taking advantage of this feature by merging dormant or unavailable products with new or existing product listings as a way to transfer positive reviews from one product to another.

In one case, the consumer champion found reviews for a soap dispenser and a phone screen cover listed under a pair of headphones to artificially boost the product’s rating.

Which? even found a smartwatch with 938 reviews dating back to 2011, despite having been first listed for sale in January 2019.

Review factory Facebook groups

In 2018, Which? went undercover to reveal the Facebook ‘review factory’ groups with tens of thousands of members that are designed to act as a marketplace for fake reviews, generating incentivised positive ratings for products listed on Amazon.

Despite reporting the issue to Facebook, as recently as last month Which? found review groups that were still highly active, with 133 new posts in just an hour on one group.

CMA action

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently announced that Facebook and eBay must tackle the sale of fake reviews through their sites.

Facebook informed the CMA that the reported groups had been removed. But a search reveals dozens more in their place, with thousands of members. Which? easily found more than 20 clearly labelled groups offering products for incentivised reviews shortly after.

Natalie Hitchins, Which? head of home products and services, said: “Our investigation shows the lengths that unscrupulous sellers will go to constantly pull the wool over the eyes of shoppers.

“Writing or commissioning fake or incentivised reviews is in breach of consumer law and can lead to criminal action against the individuals responsible. It is unacceptable that consumers continue to be misled into buying poor quality or even unsafe products by the current system of reviews and rankings.

“Online platforms must do more to tackle fake reviews, going above and beyond the current approach. If they fail to put more rigorous systems in place, then the CMA must intervene to ensure that fake reviews and other misleading tactics can be stamped out.”

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