How to spot fake reviews and shady ratings on Amazon

How to Spot Fake Reviews and Shady Ratings on Amazon

Sort by most recent reviews, check if older reviews were for completely different products and search for red flags such as ‘gift’ or ‘free’

By Nicole Nguyen, Updated July 20, 2022 3:48 pm ET

Amazon AMZN -1.77%▼ is suing the administrators of more than 10,000 Facebook groups it says coordinated fake reviews on the shopping giant’s platform. While Amazon didn’t name the admins, the company did identify one group, called “Amazon Product Review,” which it said had more than 43,000 members.

Anywhere reviews exist—for apps, restaurants, products—manipulation exists, too. Amazon, as the nation’s largest online retailer, is the likeliest place you’ll find it. The majority of its products come from its Marketplace program, where millions of third-party sellers compete to peddle everything from USB cables to lawn furniture. Fake reviews can help sellers get an edge and make more money, hence those cheap “five-star” no-name products that you buy then wish you hadn’t.

It is against Amazon’s rules for third-party sellers to pay or motivate people with free products or cash compensation. Many do, however, and evade detection by coordinating on platforms such as Facebook. A spokeswoman for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said, “Groups that solicit or encourage fake reviews violate our policies and are removed. We are working with Amazon on this matter and will continue to partner across the industry to address fake reviews.”

Amazon’s legal action is a step toward reducing fake reviews on its platform. “Proactive legal action targeting bad actors is one of many ways we protect customers by holding bad actors accountable,” said Dharmesh Mehta, an Amazon vice president who oversees customer trust, in a press release.

But it is a never-ending struggle for Amazon, and one that isn’t likely to just go away. 

I’ve written about how some sellers hunt down customers who leave negative reviews, and how others include inserts advertising gift cards or free products in exchange for reviews. A study from researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, published on July 11, shows how products with fake reviews share a common set of reviewers. This pool could easily move to another communication channel.

“We want Amazon customers to shop with confidence knowing that the reviews they see are authentic and trustworthy. That’s why we take reviews abuse seriously and aim to prevent fake reviews from ever appearing in our store,” an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement following publication of this column. She said the company receives more than 30 million reviews a week, and that more than 12,000 Amazon employees work to prevent fraud and abuse, including fake reviews. “We have stopped hundreds of millions of suspected fake reviews before they were seen by a customer,” she added.

You’ll still have to do some sleuthing in the reviews section when shopping online. I vet some products such as electronics or skin care more thoroughly, as shoddy quality or mislabeling can have larger consequences. You can’t know with 100% certainty whether reviews were manipulated—even “verified purchase” ratings can be faked—but there are some telltale signs for the most blatant offenders. 

How to Spot Manipulated Ratings

When you’re on an Amazon listing, look for a small link with the number of ratings, right underneath the product’s title. This link is a shortcut to the bottom of the page showing a summary of customer reviews.

Scroll down to the bottom of this section and click on “See all reviews.” This will take you to a dashboard where you can sort reviews by positive or critical ratings, search through review text or filter by verified purchases.

• Avoid products with only five-star reviews. Any product with hundreds or thousands of reviews should show a healthy mix of star ratings.

• Inspect the one-star reviews first. Take note of any repeated mentions of glaring defects. In the “All stars” dropdown in the review dashboard, select “1 star only.” If the negative reviews are about something out of the seller’s control, such as a late delivery by the shipping partner, I’ll give it a pass.

• Sort by most recent. Under Sort By, change the dropdown from “Top reviews” to “Most recent.” This often offers a better mix of reviews and can surface recent shipping or quality control issues.

• Actually read the reviews. This one’s obvious: Do the reviewers mention they haven’t actually tried the product yet? I once came across a case for a new device that wasn’t out yet, with dozens of positive reviews! Check the dates too. If many of the comments were posted around the same time, that could be an indication of manipulation.

• Be suspicious of positive photo and video reviews. Images can be a helpful way to understand a product’s size or features, but paid-review operations often require reviewers to include media. That is why a simple bath mat can end up with minutes-long video reviews, hyperbolically praising its plushness or color. 

• Search for red flags such as “gift” or “free.” In the search field (“Search customer reviews”), look for reviews that mention a gift card or free product in exchange, which might indicate that the seller is boosting ratings through financial incentives.

• Check for merged reviews. Skim the text for reviews of entirely different products. You can also see if there are other versions of the listing. Click the “All formats” drop down to see other variations of the product. Some sellers merge two different listings together to increase the number of reviews. If you see a book review on a page for a garden hose, steer clear.

• Look at global reviews. Now that Amazon includes international reviews with its U.S. product listings, some sellers merge reviews of different products from other countries to inflate ratings. On the product’s main listing page, scroll down to “Top reviews from other countries” to see international ratings.

• Visit the seller page. Under the big orange Buy Now button, look at the seller’s name next to “Sold by.” If the product isn’t sold directly by Amazon, the text will be a link to the seller’s storefront. Here you can see seller-specific feedback, where that seller is located and the most important info of all—the seller’s refund policy. You’ll want to know whether Amazon’s 30-day return policy, or another seller-specific policy, applies in case anything goes wrong.

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