What to do about fake reviews

If you thought you were being smart by clicking that product review on Amazon before buying, think again. Chances are good it was a fake.

Smart shoppers hoping to get some reliable “from the horse’s mouth” advice on products offered through Amazon.com are being duped on a scale that makes you wonder who the smart ones really are.

According to a recent report, there are thousands — that’s right, literally thousands — of fake reviews littering America’s favorite online retail hub.

Amazon knows about it and has identified more than a thousand individuals it intends to sue.

The company hopes the lawsuits will help discourage the countless nefarious elements visiting its site to post fake reviews and then sell them at a rate of five bucks and up.

It’s an uphill battle.

First, it’s difficult for researchers to pinpoint conclusively which reviews are fake and which are real. And even when a fake is identified, tracking down the person who wrote it is like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

The fact that a given review can originate anywhere in the world further complicates the issue.

And the problem of fake reviews isn’t limited to Amazon. Reports indicate that as many as 15 to 20 percent of reviews on the Internet are fake.

Some of the Internet’s true blue consumer sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, as well as newer shopping comparison sites and even Google’s App store, are riddled with fictitious reviews.

Online customer reviews, like so many ideas gone awry, seemed like a good one at the time. But now, for consumers looking for quality, it’s more difficult than ever to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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So, who would take the time to visit popular websites only to post fake product reviews?

It turns out that writing fake reviews has become a business of its own. Often, negative reviews are written by pros hired to badmouth the competition’s products or brand.

Positive reviews, too, are often faked to increase the overall rating of a product.

The fake review business must be good.

With the sea of product choices facing consumers today, shoppers are increasingly turning to peer reviews as a beacon to guide them on their way.

As a frequent Amazon shopper myself, I got a little steamed at the reports of fake reviews. Armed with my new knowledge, I hit the site to see for myself.

I happen to be in the market for a “white noise machine.” You know, the kind you use at night to help your baby — and you – to sleep?

Curious about a few decent-quality options that looked to have more than a handful of one-star ratings, I delved deeper.

Sure enough, among numerous brands, there was a dubious similarity between the negative product reviews.

For example, one said the product “died in three weeks.” Another said “died in 4 weeks.” Still another said “died in 5 weeks.”

Other reviews declared in all caps, HORRIBLE PRODUCT, and then proceeded to recommend another option offered by a competitor.

Still others said, “Please don’t waste your time or money on this product like I did.”

Were these reviews written by shills, paid to do the bidding of some nameless, faceless competitor? I’ll likely never know. But now, knowing they could be fake is enough for me to start taking them with a grain of salt.

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Consumer advocates say there are some red flags that can help you spot a fake:

Frequent reviewers. An author with an overwhelming number of reviews for the same brand or product family is likely a shill, particularly if the reviews are only positive or negative. Check out their personal review history, if available.

Over-the-top subject lines. A strange subject line can automatically label a review as unreliable. Subject lines that include the full product name or fluffy, useless hyperbole like “This Product Is The Finest Ever Made!” are often trash.

Odd phrasings. If a phrase strikes you as odd, copy and paste it into a search engine and see what pops up. You may find it spread across cyberspace, including the merchant’s own corporate website.

I also like to look at the literacy level of a review in forming an opinion as to the review’s veracity. To me, a well-written review carries more weight than one riddled with run-on sentences, misspellings, grammatical errors and lots of CAPS and exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So, here we are, suckered by our own reviews — the very thing we hoped would give us a leg up against shoddy products and shifty business practices. But even with the fake reviews, the reader can get a good sense of the consensus on a product, disregarding outliers, of course.

We’re used to being skeptical when it comes to claims made by the companies that want our business, but when you can’t trust your “fellow consumers,” whom can you trust?

Do you believe Amazon's reviews?

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Joseph Luther

Hailing from the great white north, Joe’s background is in corporate communications. He is a writer, media junky and believer in the power of the consumer for change.

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