If you're looking for a bargain on Prime Day, it might be worth remembering that not everything is what it seems on Amazon's sprawling online marketplace. Anxious to stand out in the crowded pack, many brands actively covet five-star reviews. Some brands might even solicit those recommendations, even if doing so violates Amazon's terms of service.
The e-commerce giant is well aware and has acknowledged that fake reviews are a problem. It removes and sometimes sues offenders. However, it struggles to rein in coordinated efforts outside of its website that are organized to flood product listings with good reviews in quid pro quo schemes.
For shoppers comparing 15 versions of a wireless phone charger or dashcam, the overload of stars and comments -- real and fake -- can be overwhelming.
Here's how a typical scam works. It starts with Amazon shoppers who accept refunds or gift cards in exchange for positive reviews. The e-commerce giant calls these write-ups "incentivized reviews" because they come from real shoppers who are paid for their positive opinion. The practice was once tacitly allowed, and reviewers would often note that they got a product for free. Amazon banned the practice in 2016, so reviewers stopped including that information. Now the practice goes on in the shadows.
The schemes are remarkably common, and Amazon has kicked successful companies off its marketplace for breaking the rules. In May of last year, it removed listings for electronics sold by Aukey and Mpow amid reports the companies had engaged in incentivized reviews. Amazon also says it puts resources into removing fake reviews and the accounts that post them, adding that it blocked 200 million suspected fake reviews before they were posted in 2020. A company spokesperson said 99% of Amazon's actions on incentivized reviews take place proactively, that is, before problems are reported to the company.
"We want Amazon customers to shop with confidence knowing that the reviews they read are authentic and relevant," the Amazon spokesperson said. "That's why we take reviews abuse seriously and aim to prevent fake reviews from ever appearing in our store.
The spokesperson added that Amazon fields 30 million reviews each week, and uses machine learning and human reviewers to evaluate all of them before they're publicly posted. Shoppers can also report a review that doesn't seem authentic using the "report abuse" link on product reviews.
Sellers face intense competition for shoppers' attention on Amazon's marketplace. The company's Prime Day sale starting on Tuesday is no exception, and analysts say getting noticed during the discount shopping event is a high priority for sellers. Many are spending more on ads in an effort to get their products in front of Prime Day shoppers' eyes, according to research from CommerceIQ, a firm that helps retailers manage sales on Amazon and other platforms. Some sellers, however, have built up a barrage of fake reviews that leave shoppers unsure if the number of five-star reviews on a product is legit or artificially inflated. That makes choosing what to buy challenging for shoppers on Prime Day, or any day, especially if they're looking through dozens of copycat items listed on a marketplace that hosts nearly 2 million sellers globally.
Amazon also faces a challenge when identifying fake reviews that come from real customers who've bought and used a product. Their behavior looks legitimate, and the same customer might write some reviews that are paid and others that aren't. Adding to the problem, the fake reviews are often coordinated on social media sites the company doesn't control. In May 2021, a UK regulator said it would continue scrutinizing these groups on Facebook and Instagram, and noted that 16,000 social media groups that coordinated refunds for fake Amazon reviews had been removed. Amazon says it reports fake reviews groups to social media companies.
Meta, the company that runs those social media platforms, bans the trade of reviews and has automated processes to detect the schemes. The company said that people can report this type of group and that it removes groups and content if they're found to be in violation of the rules. Amazon also monitors social networks for groups coordinating the reviews and last year reported 6,000 of the groups to social media companies.
The problem has a circular nature. The faster a product can build up good reviews, the more visibility it can get as a "best seller" on Amazon and the faster it can earn the trust of shoppers who've never bought from that company before. As that company gets more customers, it also has more people it can solicit paid reviews from, speeding up its ratings success even further.
Here's how these schemes work, and how they keep themselves going:
When a shopper logs into their Amazon account and starts searching for something to buy, a product's star rating is one of the first things they see. With so many third-party sellers listing products on the company's marketplace globally, the ratings can help shoppers decide whether to trust products from brands they've never heard of before.
The shopper might see a promising hair straightener, cabinet, coffee maker, toothbrush -- or really anything -- from a brand that has some hit products on Amazon's top sellers lists. The brand's positive reviews might help the shopper trust a product that they could otherwise buy from a name brand.
Since positive reviews are so central to sellers' successes, Amazon's ban on reviews in exchange for refunds aims to keep these reviews trustworthy.
After buying a product based on positive reviews, an honest shopper might get recruited for a fake review scheme in a couple of different ways. In the first scenario, the product arrives in the Amazon smile box, and the customer notices a card with a QR code or a website printed on it. This is so common no shopper would blink, and the link might lead to a regular customer support website that's above board.
However, it might also lead the shopper to a group on Facebook or another social media site where the brand offers up more products for review -- in exchange for a refund.
The second scenario is more direct. The card in the package might directly offer a gift card or PayPal credit in exchange for a positive review. If the shopper follows through on the offer, it will add an "incentivized" review to the listing for the product they just purchased.
On a Facebook group that's coordinating positive reviews, shoppers will see posts from page administrators announcing new products that need reviews on Amazon or another online marketplace. This situation can lead the shopper to leave positive reviews for the brand's other products, including newer products that don't have as many reviews yet.
The shopper might also invite their friends to the group, recruiting more people to write reviews in exchange for products.
Sometimes multiple brands use the same group to trawl for reviewers. Once shoppers are in this world, they might receive private messages or friend requests from unrelated companies looking for more people to review their products.
In either scenario, the shopper writes a positive review and then sends proof to a representative of the company. That could be in an email or private message on Facebook. They may share their PayPal details or accept a gift card in return for their efforts.
Facebook group administrators try to make themselves available to shoppers as much as they can, sometimes adding group members as friends on the platform and keeping them apprised of when they'll be available to answer questions or process refunds.
When a new Amazon shopper goes online and looks for products in categories sold by the third-party seller, they'll see even more positive reviews. Even if the product is genuinely good, it will rack up positive reviews much faster than it would if it relied on traditional marketing and refrained from offering refunds in exchange for reviews.
The ever increasing number of positive reviews on the brand's listings might convince the shopper to trust the product. They buy it and then find a card inside with a QR code or website on it.
And the cycle continues.
Correction, Nov. 23: This article has been updated to reflect that 99% of Amazon's actions on incentivized reviews take place before problems are reported to the company.
First published on Nov. 23, 2021, at 5:00 a.m. PT.