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Amazon and Google fake reviews to be investigated by antitrust regulator

The UK's Competition and Markets Authority is concerned the companies haven't done enough to tackle the problem.

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Angela Lang/CNET

The UK's Competition and Markets Authority said Friday that it's launched a probe into fake Amazon and Google reviews, to see if the companies broke consumer law by not taking enough action to protect shoppers. The new probe by the antitrust watchdog follows an initial investigation that opened in May 2020.

Fake and misleading reviews can change businesses' star ratings and determine how prominently companies and products are displayed, potentially altering your shopping experience.

"Our worry is that millions of online shoppers could be misled by reading fake reviews and then spending their money based on those recommendations," CMA Chief Executive Andrea Coscelli said in a release. "Equally, it's simply not fair if some businesses can fake five-star reviews to give their products or services the most prominence while law-abiding businesses lose out."

If the CMA investigation finds that Amazon and Google have broken consumer law, the agency may seek formal commitments that they'll crack down on fake reviews, or take court action if they fail to do so. Google's business reviews permeate search results and its Maps service, which shows star ratings for nearby businesses. Amazon's fake reviews problem is also pervasive. Amid the investigation into Facebook, the social media giant removed 16,000 groups that were offering refunds on Amazon goods in exchange for reviews. 

The Facebook groups can help brands game Amazon's system by quickly accumulating positive reviews and shooting to the top of search results for customers shopping on the retail giant's website. One group operating on Facebook as of last week promoted products from brands that have top-selling products in household categories on Amazon, like sonic toothbrushes and coffee machines. 

An Amazon spokesperson said via email that the company devotes "significant resources" to stopping fake reviews from appearing in its store and will work with the CMA in its probe. Earlier this month, the e-commerce giant blamed social media companies for the spread of fake reviews on its site, saying they allow bad actors to buy and sell fake product reviews.

"Our strict policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences, and when we find policy violations, we take action -- from removing abusive content to disabling user accounts," a Google spokesperson said in an emailed statement, noting that the tech giant will assist the CMA as well.