The world of fake online reviews

An excerpt from a Choice article about fake online reviews.

Inside the world of fake online reviews

Fake reviews are conning Australians out of millions, despite efforts to stop them.
Margaret Rafferty
Last updated:
09 November 2023
Fact-checked

Need to know

  • The direct influence of fake reviews is estimated to generate more than $150 billion in spending globally each year
  • Unscrupulous businesses continue to openly recruit fake reviews on social media
  • Our nationally representative survey heard from shoppers who had been offered inducements to change a negative review

Since the dawn of the internet, when we took our first tentative steps into the early forums and chat rooms, lies and falsehoods have flourished.
Today, despite the best efforts of those seeking to stop harmful online deception, fakery continues to thrive. From catfishing on dating sites to elaborate financial scams, deceit prospers in a setting where anonymity is easy.
The realm of online reviews is no exception.

How common are fake reviews?

The impact of fake reviews is real and costly. A 2021 report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimated that the direct influence of fake online reviews translates to global spending of $152 billion, $900 million of which is spent by Australians.
Platforms that host customer reviews are well aware fake reviews are a problem and they fight back with tools and systems designed to detect and remove them.
The direct influence of fake online reviews translates to global spending of $152 billion
Amazon told us it proactively blocked more than 200 million suspected fake reviews from its stores in 2022. Trustpilot claims more than 2.7 million fake reviews were removed from its site in 2021, and Google told us that in 2022 it blocked or removed more than 115 million policy-violating reviews.

Fake reviews persist despite platforms’ efforts

Unfortunately, despite these actions, the problem of fake reviews persists. The WEF estimates that four percent of online reviews are fake. But according to some, that’s probably the tip of the iceberg.
“Fake reviews are likely grossly underreported, simply because they remain subversive and undetected,” says Jana Bowden, professor of marketing at Macquarie University’s School of Business.
Falsification, lies and deceit are insidious problems and absolutely rife in the world of reviews
Jana Bowden, professor of marketing at Macquarie University’s School of Business
“Harvard found that in 2020 alone, 4.5 million sellers procured fake reviews by paying people to write them. Falsification, lies and deceit are insidious problems and absolutely rife in the world of reviews.”
Customer reviews are big business. In August 2021 the WEF predicted that online reviews would influence $3.8 trillion in global spending in that year. So we shouldn’t be surprised that unscrupulous businesses might be tempted to do whatever it takes to ensure they get good reviews.

Read more: Scam ads rampant on popular social platforms

Shoppers coerced to change negative reviews

Fake positive reviews aren’t the only issue preventing shoppers from getting the true measure of a product. Companies are also incentivising people to remove negative reviews.
Around 10% of people we surveyed said they’d been offered an inducement in order to leave a review.
In our June 2023 nationally representative Consumer Pulse survey, CHOICE asked why those who’d recently written a product review had done so.
Around 10% said it was because they were given an inducement of some kind – like a discount, or cashback. Around three percent of those respondents were offered these benefits in return for a positive review, or to change a negative review to a positive one.

The power of negative reviews

Every online review platform we looked at has policies in place to prohibit businesses from offering these sorts of inducements, but clearly it still happens. Most likely because negative reviews have a lot of power.
As part of a study published in 2022, Professor Bowden and international collaborators at Finland’s Jyvaskyla University looked at more than 12,000 tweets. They found that negative reviews had a powerful impact on the way consumers form their attitudes to products and businesses.
“Negative information is especially potent and viral in terms of its spread. It impacts current buyers of a product who might be questioning their choices, but it also puts off those who have never bought the product, meaning that the brand loses both current and future consumers,” says Bowden.

Read more: How to stay anonymous online

Inside Facebook’s fake review groups

It was easy to find businesses recruiting fake reviewers on Facebook.
Unscrupulous businesses don’t just sit around waiting for bad reviews that they can encourage their customers to change.
It isn’t hard to find online sellers actively enlisting positive reviewers, often in exchange for free products. A favourite way to find these reviewers is through social media.
Earlier this year we searched Facebook using terms such as, “Amazon reviewers”, “Google reviewers”, and “Trustpilot reviewers”.
In less than half an hour we found over a dozen groups, with members totalling more than 45,000.
In these groups, we saw listings from sellers seeking positive reviews in exchange for free products, with everything from beauty products and pet supplies to smartwatches, headphones and toys on offer.
We got in touch with one of the businesses touting their products and were sent a list of items available to buy through Amazon Australia. The seller told us they worked for a marketing company and said if we purchased from them and gave a positive review they would provide a refund.
We asked Meta, the company that owns and operates Facebook, about how they stop these groups from recruiting deceptive testimonials.
A spokesperson told us: “Meta doesn’t allow the coordination of harmful or fraudulent activity on Facebook, and we have a dedicated policy against fraud and deception. Under this policy, we do not allow people to solicit, offer or trade fake user reviews.”
They also removed the groups we brought to their attention.

Read more: 7 ways to spot a scam website

What is the ACCC doing?

In November 2022, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) recommended a range of new measures to address harms from digital platforms, saying there should be stronger requirements for combating scams and fake reviews.
“The ACCC is prioritising deceptive and manipulative advertising and marketing practices in the digital economy,” a spokesperson told us.
In its fifth Digital Platform Services Inquiry (DPSI) report, it recommended targeted measures to protect consumers against fake reviews, including the establishment of a new digital platform ombuds scheme.

Read more: How to avoid and report impersonation scams

How to spot fake reviews

The ACCC advises consumers to look at a range of sources for reviews when researching before making a purchase, adding that unfortunately, there are a variety of methods used to manipulate customer reviews.

Signs that a review might be fake or manipulated include:

  • a spike in very positive or negative reviews in a short period
  • lots of positive reviews and no negative ones on a business’s website, compared with review platforms showing a mix of reviews for that business
  • the same or similar reviewers’ names or language used across reviews
  • reviews without specific detail, or with incorrect details, about the business or product
  • references being made to free gifts or other incentives.

“The trouble for consumers is that knowing what’s authentic and what’s inauthentic isn’t straightforward, and in reality, falling for a fake review is inevitable,” says Bowden.

Read more in our article, How to spot a fake online review.

About reviews on our site

CHOICE product reviews and recommendations are based solely on the results of our rigorous and independent testing. User reviews that appear on choice.com.au are moderated by our service provider and CHOICE staff.

Read more: Top tips for shopping online

2 Likes

I also think the Influencer culture adds to this problem as you posted about in the other topic. Some Influencers don’t always give honest appraisal of goods as their continuing income is a result of sales of the products they tout (it may be many more that are offering unbalanced views but care must be taken not to heap abuse on the honest ones).

Great that these issues are being more loudly discussed and attention brought to bear on the problems.

3 Likes

About a year ago our small, Not-for-Profit club’s gmail was being bombarded with offers to do 1,000 glowing reviews for say $70. Don’t get them any more; perhaps gmail have identified them as spam?

3 Likes

I know of at least one business that was being hounded to buy such fake reviews, and after they declined repeatedly, the scammers went on to post multiple one-star reviews for the business on Google Maps.

2 Likes

Another thing that has been distorted is the star review system. Theoretically an ordinary uncomplicated transaction that met requirements should be rated 3 stars, with 5 reserved for truly exceptional service.
These days anything but 5 is treated as bad and unacceptable. Vendors including ride share drivers get upset at anything less than 5.

2 Likes