Personal Finance

The Telltale Signs You’re Reading Fake Amazon Reviews

The fake review market on Amazon shows no signs of slowing down. Here’s what you need to know before adding an item to your shopping cart.

The impending arrival of the holiday season means millions of Americans will collectively open up their wallets as soon as turkey dinner is served right up until the night before Christmas. In 2017, the country dropped $691.9 billion on making merry, specifically by purchasing plenty of decorations, candy and, of course, gifts. While satisfying everyone's list used to mean trudging out to the mall and battling hordes of stressed-out, weary shoppers, more people than ever now depend on Amazon to help make holiday wishes come true.

One tradeoff of having thousands of products available for purchase at the tap of a button: These potential gifts only exist as a collection of pixels on your screen until they actually arrive at your front door, which is why most of us look to customer reviews for insight on whether the gift is worth pulling out the credit card for. But many of the purported authentic reviews from ordinary, everyday shoppers are works of fiction, paid for by merchants to bolster the sales of whatever they're shilling. All this makes fake Amazon reviews a growing problem for customers and a headache for the e-commerce giant, whose company ethos is putting customers first.

Who writes fake Amazon reviews?

"I got a free dress out of the process, they got a review," said Alex Tran. Tran, a yoga and fitness blogger, found herself browsing private Facebook groups dedicated to hooking up sellers with review writers. She quickly received a private message from someone offering to reimburse her in full for purchasing a maxi dress and reviewing it on Amazon. "They gave me a selection of six different dresses," Tran said. "I thought, 'That's cool, you can get things you're actually interested in.'" The individual didn't pressure her into writing a 5-star review, though they did encourage Tran to post a photo of the dress with her review "so it looks more authentic." The positive feedback Tran left on the dress' Amazon product description page appears to other users as a verified purchase—a classification reserved for reviews written by those who buy the product but don’t receive any sort of discount. Tran remains adamant that receiving the dress for free didn't bias her review, but that disclaimer is nowhere to be found on the review.

This under-the-table relationship between sellers and review writers for hire exists because it works. "Historically, consumers have relied on price and brand to determine the quality of a product," said Bart de Langhe, Ph.D., associate professor of marketing at Escuela Superior de Administración y Dirección de Empresas (ESADE) in Barcelona, Spain, and author of a recent study on the validity of online ratings. "What we found is, as soon as you give consumers access to the average user rating, it blows away the other effects." Seeing that 5-star rating on a child's car seat can override our better judgment, convincing us an $80 product is just as good as one costing $400.

How to identify fake Amazon reviews.

The star rating represents just one facet of customer feedback on a product you have access to when shopping on Amazon, the other being the written text reviews themselves. Reading glowing reviews about how a pair of headphones transformed a customer's appreciation of music or why a particular brand of toilet paper has them looking forward to every trip to the bathroom helps reinforce the belief that you're looking at a quality purchase, and helps convert you from a casual online shopper to a customer—a fact Amazon counts on. "Reviews are accounted for in Amazon’s search algorithm very similarly to how PageRank works on Google," said Saoud Khalifah, CEO of Fakespot, a website dedicated to helping consumers identify questionable online reviews. "If you have a high rating and positive customer sentiment, they weigh your product very heavily," meaning the review gets seen by more potential Amazon shoppers like you.

Khalifah founded Fakespot in 2016 to shine a light on what he sees as a rampant problem that threatens to undermine the credibility of customer reviews. "It's a goal for me to bring trust back to e-commerce," he said. Shoppers curious about the quality of reviews on a product can copy and paste the product page's link into a search bar on the Fakespot homepage and receive a grade on the overall reliability of the reviews, ranging from F to A. The Fakespot algorithm analyzes each review's language (comparing it linguistically with the language of known fake reviews), the review writer’s history on Amazon, the number of total reviews the product has received in a short time span and other factors Khalifah wouldn't reveal to determine the grade of the product's reviews. It should be noted that Fakespot never says a product has fake Amazon reviews—instead it uses the term "unreliable," since the company claims it's impossible to know for certain the intent of the reviewer and whether it was written in good faith.

A checklist of what to look for in a review

What's the future of fake Amazon reviews?

Of the more than 500 million products for sale on Amazon, there’s no consensus on how many of the reviews have been compromised. Amazon hasn't responded to requests from ValuePenguin at the time of writing but has in the past claimed the number of fake reviews on its site totals less than 1%. Khalifah, however, estimates the number of fake Amazon reviews to be as high as 30%, with the percentage jumping up to 95% for reviews left on products from generic sellers new to the American market—particularly if they're from China.

Amazon has taken steps to combat fake reviews, periodically purging the offending entries from various product pages and, in some cases, banning sellers from its platform. "We recently improved our detection of promotional reviews, which resulted in the removal of reviews, both new and old," reads the company's explanation of customer reviews on its website. "While our enforcement has improved, our Customer Review Creation Guidelines have not changed. We hope to keep improving our approach over time and we welcome feedback from customers and reviewers alike on how to keep making reviews more valuable to Amazon shoppers."

Still, the incentive for sellers to pay for positive reviews and the sheer number of products on the website combine to make the problem too big for Amazon to police it out of existence. "We’ve seen them deleting hundreds of reviews, but they still leave up a lot of fake reviews," Khalifah said. The attacks on the integrity of customer reviews seem to keep piling up week after week, and not just from paid fake review writers. A leaked internal e-mail from cosmetics company Sunday Riley shows the company instructing employees to write positive reviews for its Saturn and Space Race products, going so far as to explain how to set up a virtual private network (VPN) in order to better mask their IP address from Amazon to avoid detection.

Even though Khalifah sees the problem of fake reviews on Amazon and other e-commerce platforms as a growing threat, he remains stubborn in his hope that people will continue to factor in customer reviews when making online purchasing decisions. "Personally, if I’m shopping online and the only opinion I have on the product is from the manufacturer’s description, I won't buy it," he said. "I need to see reviews; I need to see people who buy a product, how they feel about it."

James Ellis

James Ellis is a former Staff Writer for ValuePenguin, covering credit, banking, travel and other personal finance topics. He previously wrote for Newsweek, Men's Health, and other nationally-published magazines.