Practical Ecommerce

Amazon Sues Fake Product Review Websites

Ecommerce merchants know the importance of favorable customer reviews. Results of a 2013 survey of 1,046 American consumers by research firm Dimensional Research show that 90 percent of consumers who read online reviews claimed that positive reviews influenced their decision to buy.

Most merchants and consumers also know that not all reviews are genuine. When the proportion of fake reviews — by individuals who have not purchased a product and are being paid to write positive reviews — reaches a certain level, the entire review function is threatened.

Amazon, the merchant that could have the most to lose from phony reviews, has decided to take legal action.

The Lawsuit

Earlier this month, Amazon announced that it had filed suit in Washington state court against four websites to stop them from soliciting and paying for phony positive product reviews. These sites sell their services to manufacturers and product vendors, promising them glowing product reviews. Amazon contends the review sites engage in trademark violations and deceptive acts and run afoul of the state of Washington’s consumer protection laws as well as the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act. It is seeking damages and restitution. See a PDF of the filing here.

Guaranteed 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon.

Guaranteed 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon.

The four sites (which have different owners) are BuyAzonReviews.com, BuyAmazonReviews.com, BuyReviews.net, and BuyReviewsNow.com — the last two sites have been taken down. While Amazon does have detection systems in place, the ” drip-feed” delivery system advertised on these sites allows many of the phony reviews to slip by.

The complaint states that, “Amazon takes the integrity of its customer reviews very seriously. Amazon has developed sophisticated technologies and protocols to detect and remove false, misleading, and inauthentic reviews from its website. Amazon scours its site for fake reviews, removes them when it finds them, and suspends sellers that post or purchase fake reviews.”

According to the complaint, Amazon alleges that to trick it into thinking the reviews are from verified purchasers (those who have an Amazon account and have bought products), the owner of Buy Azon Reviews advises sellers to not to actually ship the item to the reviewer, but just send an empty box for tracking purposes. Still, Jay Gentile, the site owner, claims he is doing nothing wrong or illegal.

Buy Azon Reviews sells merchants positive reviews.

Buy Azon Reviews sells merchants positive reviews.

While in the short-term Amazon may benefit from fake four and five star reviews, the less credible the reviews are, the less customers will rely on them. That can affect Amazon’s reputation.

The complaint states, “While small in number, these reviews threaten to undermine the trust that customers, and the vast majority of sellers and manufacturers, place in Amazon, thereby tarnishing Amazon’s brand. Amazon strictly prohibits any attempt to manipulate customer reviews and actively polices its website to remove false, misleading, and inauthentic reviews. Despite substantial efforts to stamp out the practice, an unhealthy ecosystem is developing outside of Amazon to supply inauthentic reviews.”

Earlier this year, Yelp, a company with a business model based entirely on customer reviews, sued YelpDirector.com and Revleap.me, alleging that the sites help businesses to post positive reviews of their operations and suppress bad reviews. YelpDirector has now been taken down. It appears that just the filing of a lawsuit can make reviews sites go away, presumably because larger companies have deeper pockets. If Amazon were to prevail in court it would receive triple damages and attorney fees.

Where Are the Regulatory Agencies?

These websites are so blatant in their tactics — often advertising for positive review writers on Craigslist and Freelance.com — that fake reviews would appear to fall under the purview of the Federal Trade Commission. In 2014, the FTC did launch an investigation into Yelp after receiving 2,046 complaints about the company beginning in 2008, mostly from small business owners claiming unfair or fraudulent reviews. However the agency decided to take no action. Going after fake review sites allows Yelp to show that it is trying to limit phony reviews. We’ve addressed negative Yelp reviews here previously, at “Can Lawsuits Remedy Bad Online Reviews?”

Moreover, states, if not the federal government, are cracking down. Two years ago, the New York Attorney General forced 19 companies to pay $350,000 in penalties for fabricating online reviews.

Marcia Kaplan

Marcia Kaplan

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Comments ( 6 )

  1. Pamela Hazelton April 24, 2015 Reply

    This is great news for both small biz ecommerce “competitors” and consumers. Can’t wait to see all these fake review service offerings crushed.

  2. Carlos Rivera April 28, 2015 Reply

    I completely agree. This is great news! Reminds me of an article I read earlier this year: http://www.businessinsider.com/photo-shows-how-fake-app-store-rankings-are-made-2015-2

  3. Malcolm April 28, 2015 Reply

    Great to hear. We wanted to get some (up to 5) reviews for products, however when we talked to a review company they were looking to spike the review process with 50, 100 or 150 reveiws in a one hit.

    It took us 6 months to build organically 150+ reviews on a product that has been a best seller during that time. A couple of weeks later a product overtook us with over 300 reviews all rating as 4 or 5s. We raised this to Amazon and think they took action, though they will not tell us what that is.

    The sad part is the company offering the reviews seemed to genuinely feel there was nothing wrong with the spike approach. I call it black hat. We asked for them to do a program of 5 reviews for ten different products and it was not even something they supported.

    • Jim May 6, 2015 Reply

      Customers are gullible. These fake review sites are the tip of the iceberg, there are many more out there.

  4. Glen July 8, 2015 Reply

    Just reported inappropriate reviews. The practice still seems rampant. Reviewers with over 30 reviews on other products, same company, on the same day! Who buys 30 leather bags and gives 5 stars to all of them? That’s right. Nobody. All reviews should be from confirmed buyers only. I don’t need someone’s opinion on something unless they’ve sat like me, wondering if they should click buy, and nice enough to share their thoughts on the purchase. Now I avoid searching by ratings. I may well avoid Amazon altogether if this practice widens. Ali-Express is starting to look good.

    • Jim July 11, 2015 Reply

      You said: “All reviews should be from confirmed buyers only.”

      Verified purchase is standard offer from most, if not all fake reviewers.

      They receive the fee for the fake review and the money for the price of the product, then they buy the product and review it. It’s quite simple. Since Amazon introduced “Verified purchase”, fake reviewers have been given more credibility.

      I can’t see how Ali would be any better, online reviews in general are fake.

      If you look at the history and do the research, you’ll know that Amazons concern over fake reviews is just lip service in light of negative publicity.

      This recent action from Amazon just so happens to coincide with a CMA investigation and it’s stock bubble getting bigger and tenuous.