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Apple App store and Google Play hit by wave of fake reviews

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The Apple App store and Google Play have been criticised for failing to prevent fake and suspicious reviews infiltrating their sites. Reviews which could lead unsuspecting users to spend money on worthless apps.

A quarter of apps on the Google Play store out of the top 100 in certain popular categories have suspicious reviews, while in Apple’s App Store this figure reached up to one in six (17%).

These findings from consumer champion Which? suggest that millions of unwitting users are paying for apps that have cheated their way to the top of the world’s two most prominent app stores by using fake reviews.

Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy, said: “Apple and Google are failing to prevent fake and suspicious reviews infiltrating their app stores, leaving consumers at huge risk of being misled into downloading apps that have been boosted through unscrupulous tactics.”

Fake review services

Which? initially came across apps using fake five-star reviews after a Google search revealed a number of businesses offering review services for app stores. Review broker services for apps offer bulk downloads, reviews or upvotes to help push apps up the rankings. It makes apps seem more reputable if they have been downloaded a large number of times.

One fake review broker site, reviewlancer, claims to have sold nearly 53,000 reviews.

Review traders

Which? also found review trading groups on Facebook, which openly trade on groups with names like ‘Android App ratings and reviews’ or ‘App reviews’. Which? researchers pretended to be developers looking for fake reviews for an app, and were approached by several users offering reviews for as little as £1.70.

Using information gathered from these Facebook groups and through the review broker sites, Which? compiled a list of apps that had evidently used fake reviews and then compared these to well-known and reputable apps across various categories.

Red flags

The consumer group noted four red flags that potentially revealed those apps using fake reviews.

The first was a significantly higher proportion of five-star reviews. For example, Which?’s assessment found that on the dating app which it compared to Tinder apps, 60.5% of the dating app reviews were five stars, compared to just 9.7% for Tinder.

Another red flag is apparent bulk uploads of reviews. Which? found that there were clusters of four and five-star reviews over a few days, then very few for weeks or months before another spike. These spikes likely coincide with employing a review broker.

Which? also looked at review length. Five-star reviews on the dating app which showed signs of suspicious activity were less than 20 characters long on average and were significantly shorter than the app’s one or two-star reviews. For Tinder, five-star reviews were closer to 150 characters long.

Experts also analysed the content of the reviews using sentiment analysis, a widely used method for determining the subjectivity of a review. It found that apps that had engaged in fake review activity had a higher proportion of subjective five-star reviews than one-star reviews – favouring personal opinion such as ‘best app ever’ over factual information.

All of these patterns have typically been found in Which?’s other investigations where there has been review manipulation.

Government action

The Government is expected to introduce reforms to crack down on fake reviews through its Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill.

The Bill will also give the Digital Markets Unit, which will sit within the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), powers to prevent tech giants like Apple and Google from exploiting their powerful position in key sectors. The CMA has already shown that a lack of competition for the App Store and Google Play is driving up the prices of apps, and Which?’s latest investigation suggests it could also be leading to poor quality service.

Concha said: “Our latest findings illustrate why the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill is so badly needed in order to tackle fake reviews and the dominance of the tech giants, and finally make consumer protection laws fit for the digital age.”

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