Amazon cracks down on fake reviews, goes after sellers

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Fake reviews stink. Amazon.com’s been on the warpath about this for years now, and according to GeekWire, it’s just opened a new front: going after the sellers who buy those phony reviews.

Amazon is pursuing arbitration against three merchants, demanding that they stop selling on Amazon.com, stop creating new accounts there, and “hold in trust any illegal profits” they’ve earned based on fake reviews.

The merchants now on the wrong end of Amazon’s lawyers are: REPZ, Barclin Home Products, and CCbetter Direct of China.

Nobody’s sure how many faux reviews exist, either on Amazon or elsewhere. (Some research has suggested 20-30% of web product/service reviews might be bogus, but this varies widely by product and platform.)

Amazon says only a “very small minority of sellers and manufacturers” are trying to game the system. But, according to GeekWire, the company had little trouble finding over 1,000 people to sue last year for offering fake 5-star review services via the Fiverr.com site.

Amazon’s undercover investigators secretly hired many of those folks. Turns out, some didn’t even want to write the fake reviews themselves: they actually asked their “client” to do it for them. To sneak past Amazon’s “Verified Purchaser” system, which tries to ensure that reviewers actually bought the product, dishonest reviewers even arranged shipment of empty boxes.

Just a month ago, Amazon sued five more sites, including a fake book reviewer with its own swanky, fairly brazen YouTube promo video.

Of course, the not-quite-objective-review industry takes many forms. For example, plenty of companies trade deeply discounted (or completely free) products in exchange for Amazon reviews, although reviewers are supposed to clearly disclose the deal.

Amazon recently stripped the Verified Purchaser logos from those reviews. But still, you have to wonder: who’d risk losing those freebies by writing a bad honest review?

Amazon’s been up-braining its review system with fancy algorithms that move more credible reviews up to the top, and overweight them in product ratings. Even so, it’s not easy to tell real from fake.

In fact, according to Cornell University research, humans are atrocious at it. What’s more, researchers from Texas A&M and Penn State worry that crowdsourced cheap labour platforms similar to Amazon’s own Mechanical Turk could lead to even more phony reviews. So the problem isn’t going away.

With that in mind, here’s a little help…

Watch out for extreme language, excess jargon straight out of a marketing or technical manual, or lack of detail about exactly why the product’s great or awful. Check out these 30 tips from Consumerist: they’re old, but many are still useful.

If you’re not sure about a hotel review, try copying the text into Review Skeptic, which runs tests to determine authenticity, based on the Cornell research we talked about earlier.