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FTC Brings First Case Challenging Fake Paid Reviews on an Indie Retail Website (ftc.gov)
271 points by minimaxir on Feb 26, 2019 | hide | past | web | favorite | 190 comments

There are so many fake reviews on Amazon that the "average" stars for a product are no longer reliable indicators of quality. Especially for cheap electronics (read: headphones), products that have only been listed for a month somehow have hundreds of 5 star glowing reviews.

When I do research nowadays I have to deliberately select the 1 star reviews to see if there is a real issue that's glossed over by the paid reviews.

I have to assume that there's a team of about a dozen engineers at Amazon whose entire job is solving this problem, and every so often their boss has to write a report up to SVPs about how their attempts to solve the problem are going. I imagine it involves a lot of really cool machine learning algorithms and also some simple but obvious hacks, like just blacklisting certain wide IP ranges of known bad reviewers. I imagine that the report makes a big deal about how it's successfully stopping the vast majority of these fake reviews, and it's removing more fake reviews than ever before. There's probably a series of pretty graphs that go up and to the right.

I imagine that writing this report makes their boss very nervous because I would also be nervous if I had to repeatedly tell Jeff Bezos that I was failing to stop the slowly increasing flow of people's trust away from Amazon's retail site.

You're looking at it wrong.

As much as I hate that hack Edison, he's right: you're reporting you've discovered X new ways to not solve the problem.

Nicely sums up a lot of corporate project meetings.

Even off Amazon I feel it's becoming more and more difficult to find honest product reviews. For example, if I search on Google for "best umbrellas", every result on my front page is a website that is filled with Amazon affiliate links.

I feel like none of them can be trusted because most have never touched any of the umbrellas, but they are just doing a top 10 list and rewriting opinions they read on Amazon. Of course, they don't even consider products outside of Amazon because they wouldn't receive commission on sales. So, no one is talking about the small companies producing high quality, handmade umbrellas throughout the country, but instead every source funnels traffic to the same made in China Amazon clones.

My solution to this has been to find a subreddit that's devoted to the product in question.

If there is one, then I'll check the sidebar there, read through some posts, search for a few keywords. Basically spend 15 minutes researching.

Reddit still has shills and astroturfs, but for a lot of niches they're often aggressively moderated out of the community.

To go along with your umbrella example:

Unfortunately /r/umbrellas isn't a thing, but I did find this thread[1]. Sprinkled throughout the comments are links to sites that seem to be on the up-and-up.


Reddit is so useful in that regard. So many niches with honest and detailed reviews that I usually don't buy something online without checking a relevant subreddit first.

That statement itself seems like astroturfing.

How can one be sure those subreddits don't have any paid posters?

When you have a popular post that reaches the Reddit front page, you may receive messages from people asking if you'd like to promote their products.

> How can one be sure those subreddits don't have any paid posters?

My guess is that they eventually will (and I'm sure some already do). However, one thing that kind of helps weed out the fake reviews is the fact that you can inspect a user's post history.

You can see a reviewers review history on Amazon.

Yeah, but that's just reviews.

On reddit or other more general sites, you can see their entire comment history. Hopefully you'll notice that a tiny tiny portion of their comments are related to products or reviews.

In other words, you can get a feel for if the person is genuine or not.

Of course, that doesn't 100% rule out paid shilling by (otherwise) honest people, but you do get a much better sense of the veracity of reviews on a site like reddit than you could ever get from Amazon.

You can't be sure of anything. All you can do is use multiple sources and aggregate the data.

This worked great for a while, but in the last few years reddit has become corporately dominated, regardless of moderation attempts (admins have removed moderators of certain subreddits to accomplish this, would guess based on the spend).

> but in the last few years reddit has become corporately dominated

This is always the way: once something has a large enough audience it will become a target for exploitation. This is why ad networks are juicy targets for hacks (wide spread of potential victims) and popular sites, or specific areas on those sites, like reddit can quickly become overrun by shills.

This is what I do as well. I append the word “reddit” at the end of all my google product searches if I want to get an honest, high quality review.

The other thing I do, in the hardware realm, is to see what open source and hacker efforts have been done.

If the thing is open and understood, then I will have a much better time. If not, it will probably soon go on the abandoned trash heap.

An example, for flashlights: https://www.reddit.com/r/flashlight/

Seconded. I do the same. I also do this whenever I have to explore a new domain of interest, to quickly find my bearings and some high-quality sources to continue with.

This works especially well if the domain is not niche, but has wide general-population applicability. Say, dieting. The amount of content-marketing bullshit on the general Internet makes general topical searches near useless. Whereas just browsing the collected knowledge (pinned posts, wikis) of various dieting subreddits let me quickly find one appropriate regime for me, and then its specific subreddit taught me how to apply it safely.

(Yes, it was /r/keto, and yes, it worked.)

This is a good idea. I'll do it from now on

I don't mind the affiliate links, but I mind dishonest or low quality churned reviews.

When TV shopping, I used the reviews from https://www.rtings.com/

They pointed me to issues and concerns with TV quality, provided me with an understanding of the trade-offs at various price points, and then directed me to a TV model that I purchased and have been incredibly satisfied with. Maybe we need a reputable internet equivalent to consumer reports. We obviously have demand, the question is how to finance it.

I think consistent, ethical, non-conflicted third party quality reviews can be a solid lifestyle business. Won't be a unicorn, but it'll keep a few people gainfully employed and make the world a bit better.

Well? What's wrong with Consumer Reports? Sign up, pay for it, done.

Why does valuable information that takes a lot of time and expense to produce need to be free? That attitude is the root of most of what's wrong with the web today.


Most people are only going to ever buy one or two things that are important enough to them to need to be thoroughly comparison-shopped. If there was a Consumer Reports-alike where I could pay "per report" (like paying for investment news "per report"), I'd pay. But I wouldn't subscribe.

> If there was a Consumer Reports-alike where I could pay "per report" (like paying for investment news "per report"), I'd pay. But I wouldn't subscribe.

I subscribed to CR for a month when I was shopping for a new dishwasher. After I found what I wanted, I unsubscribed. That seems functionally equivalent to what you want, at least when applied to large ticket items where the cost of a month of subscription is a small percentage of the total cost of the purchase being made.

> If there was a Consumer Reports-alike where I could pay "per report" (like paying for investment news "per report"), I'd pay. But I wouldn't subscribe.

This is a strange comparison. I'm amazed there are any worthwhile investment news items available to purchase for less than the cost of an annual CR Digital subscription ($35). It's so cheap it's hardly worth worrying about if you're going to use it at all.

Does Consumer Reports provide any value over Wirecutter? The latter is free and has negligible display advertising.

I stopped trusting the wire cutter after they shifted from recommending a $40 knife to a $145 as their best chefs knife for most people

As a layman in the space of knives, why did that cause you to stop trusting them?

In other areas, I found that up until a point, the price is generally correlated with quality. I had great success in avoiding frustration and waste by following the saw "I'm too poor to buy cheap".

Sure, up until a point. If you read a review of the best SUVs and it said the $200k Bentley Bentayga was better than the $27k Toyota RAV4 you would probably say "Well, I'm sure it has its benefits, but I doubt it's better value for money"

As someone who uses a $20 knife, I feel the same way about a $145 knife.

One of the most dangerous things in a kitchen is a dull knife. (And mandolins without guards!)

Dull knives require multiple times of stress, and sawing motion to abrade through the thing. And with more power means accidents are easier and more damaging.

A proper chefs knife (I prefer santokus) should be professionally sharpened, honed before each use, and will be razor sharp. I only need to lay the knife on a steak and pull, and it cuts right through. The cheap $20 knives are usually serrated (nigh unsharpenable) and double as hacksaws.

I agree with the GP in that the average at home chef doesn't need anything more expensive than a $45 Victorinox 8" chef knife. With moderate to proper care, you can keep a cheaper knife very sharp.

While you may be statistically correct, anecdotally my family has hurt themselves way more often with sharp knives than we have with dull knives. It's probably due to being used to a dull knife before switching to a sharp one, but I still can't stand by that adage from our history of personal use at home!

> you can keep a cheaper knife very sharp.

As demonstrated perfectly by Kiwami Japan.


I think AmazonBasic sells a set for $30ish and its more than adequate for most home users or beginners. Does it compare to my Wusthof set? No but paired with a good knife sharpener it will last you a very long time. Unless cooking is a passion of yours, I wouldn't recommend anyone go out and spend hundreds of dollars on a set of high end knifes --- the knives won't turn you into a Michelin starred chef.

After nearly 20 hours of research, checking reviews across two years, and consulting with numerous culinary professionals and chefs, I agree with you.

Their electronic reviews are fine but their other categories leave a lot to be desired. The whole point of a good review site is to find the low/medium priced item that is more than adequate for the task. Recommending a Mac or Wusthof knife is a safe bet that most won't challenge - I want them to find me the needle in the hay stack.

"Shifting" from cheap to expensive could be nefarious for sure... that said, I have a $150 Global chef knife and don't regret it one bit! (Bought on a recommendation from a culinary friend, not Wirecutter...)

There are claims [1] that Wirecutter prefers things they can get kickbacks/affiliate links for [1].

Of course, wirecutter claims that's not the case.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16729408

I don't have an issue with consumer reports. I used to browse their material occasionally.

However, most of the time, I spend very little and make few purchases. The ones that are low-value - lets say vegetable peelers and compressed air canisters - I don't need ratings for. The large ones (Appliances, Misc Electronics, Suits, Cars, etc.) I research online anyways.

So if I'm not using their product 95% of the time, their subscription business model doesn't line up with my expected use-case. So I don't use it. I would love to pay for better rating data and don't mind shelling out for information, but I do need to pay for it when I'm consuming it, not in a prophylactic manner.

Consumer Reports tends to rate heavily on things I don't much care about, like initial reliability (which for most modern products is more than fine) while almost ignoring things like ACTUAL performance and ergonomics.

They're also biased. If they generally give the winning nod to brand X, even if brand Y comes ou with a superior product, they'll still give brand X the nod.

It works the same way when brand X has sub-par releases.

Many libraries subscribe to Consumer Reports and even offer free access via their portal to it. I've used it countless of times to find reviews online.

Consumer reports is good; the problem is even the people on HN don't want to pay for any content anywhere.

I have a problem with being nickeled and dimed with every subscription service.

The whole reason it's subscription is to avoid advertisers. CR doesn't have to answer to manufacturers so their reviews are very reliable.

CR is $7.95 a month. Sign up for a month when you're making a major purchase. If it saves even 10 minutes of research time, that's value enough for me.

Subscription fees are literally the only source of income for Consumer’s Union, the parent company of Consumer Reports. They don’t take ads, they don’t take payments for reviews, and they don’t sell rights to use their ratings in advertising (they sue companies who reference their CR ratings in any kind of marketing material).

> Maybe we need a reputable internet equivalent to consumer reports.

We have one. It's cr.org

Why don't they ever show up in search engine results?

Not sure. I assume because they're paywalled and won't allow clicks from a search engine to view the content?

I don't know what the rules are around that.

Their headphone reviews are top notch too. They do actual measurements on them to determine how they actually perform rather than some reviewer spewing garbage about how the sound stage is so warm.

Yup, and since you can generate those pages algorithmically it's easy money for a clever coder.

Or reviews that were transferred over from other products. Here's a case in point:


Over 3000 reviews... most of them for products completely unrelated to the one on sale. I see reviews for a bicycle lamp, a phone screen protector, and a voltage converter.

This seems like a bug. Surely Amazon shouldn't allow sellers to transfer product reviews over from other products?

They're abusing the "color" parameter to be multiple products instead. It's astounding that Amazon has yet to actively prohibit this.

Nothing about Amazon’s abuse of their customers surprises me anymore. Their “Amazon’s Recommemdation” is a joke too, and they’re associating their brand with garbage.


Par for the Amazon course, cheap Chinese knockoffs. If they had anything other than a highly permissive refund system, they’d already be drowning in lawsuits. They must bleed refund money though, and I thought Bezos was all about right margins?

> They must bleed refund money though, and I thought Bezos was all about right margins?

That's the part that worries me. Amazon surely knows this is a problem, and I'm sure they know much more about it than we do. And yet they allow it to continue. It genuinely makes me concerned for the future of their business, where they know actually providing a quality experience is going to hammer their revenue/profits.

Many customers (myself included) don't bother going through the refund process for a <$20 item. I've been shifting my buying to other sites, instead.

What percentage of customers go through the refund process? I think I refund maybe one purchase every 4-5 years, for all of my retail activity combined. I don't believe I've ever bothered with Amazon.

I wish I was as discerning a buyer. I send back half of what I get off of Amazon, something like once every other month. By volume it's a lot more than I return anywhere else except for games impulse purchased and "returned" to Valve on Steam.

> I send back half of what I get off of Amazon

If you return too much stuff amazon will cut you off: https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/talkingtech/2018/05/23/a...

I'm sure the people who get cut off are serious outliers though. Like so far out there it is obvious that they should be cut off.

The article mentioned one example of someone returning around 1/10 items. Considering how bad their counterfeit problem is now, I'd say that's pretty low when an uninformed customer could probably expect more than that many items to be disingenuous.

If it's around 1/10, it must be over a long period of time. There have certainly been periods where I've returned _way_ more than that, including things like 'These headphones I bought a year ago have broke, this hard drive I bought 6 months ago has stopped working, AND I'd like to return this expensive item I've just bought, and the only other things I've bought recently are £5-10 books'.

I suspect it's more likely to be done on total purchase _price_ - I spend a fair amount of money on things that are very difficult to counterfeit (video games), so they are obviously never returned, which probably tips the balance back in my favour (the fact that I'm in the EU, and have a statutory right to return (for any reason) may also be a factor).

You’re right, they go after the serious outliers. Amazon announced this policy change right after this case[1] was charged.

Honestly, after reading the facts, I was shocked it took Amazon so long to take action.

But it certainly seems the average shopper/returner has nothing to worry about.


Their refund system is great. Any time I've gotten something subpar I've messaged the seller and had my money back in days with zero hassle.

Also vendors buying UPC codes off eBay. Ends up getting merged because surprise, those “unique” codes are not so unique. Amazon needs a better system for that.

I'm not sure that's the source of the problem here. There are multiple variants of this particular product, but they are all substantially similar to each other, and completely different from most of the products being reviewed.

That's hilarious.

it's not a bug, it's a exploit that fraudulent sellers are abusing.

Since any seller can list on any listing. Some sellers will list their products on listings that are out of stock, and gain editing priviledges.

Then they will edit the page to whatever other products they want, and merge it with a new listing they create.

The end result is that they get a listing with hundreds or thousands of reviews. So unsuspecting customer will purchase based on social proof.

This is a huge problem and major source of frustration for legitimate sellers on Amazon. I've had it happen and had to threaten legal action to get a fraudulent seller off of my listing.

> Or reviews that were transferred over from other products. Here's a case in point:

> https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07MH9HPTR

> Over 3000 reviews... most of them for products completely unrelated to the one on sale. I see reviews for a bicycle lamp, a phone screen protector, and a voltage converter.

And it's "Amazon's Choice for 'iphone headphone charger splitter'"!

Archive link in case the product morphs again: https://web.archive.org/web/20190226210646/https://www.amazo...

We call this "Review Hijacking" and have a bit alert that pops up on our report when detected. It's not a bug, it's a loophole that sellers are exploiting. They are taking advantage of the "product variations" feature that's supposed to be used for listing products of different styles together in one listing (size, color, format, etc).

However these sellers are essentially stealing old, expired listings of products and collecting all the reviews associated with them to pump up their rating and review count.

This has been going on for over a year. I really don't understand how Amazon hasn't figured out a way to close the loophole at this point...

I just ran into this last night searching for a converter dongle, and got hundreds of reviews for silicone rings, which... what?

Even the 1 star negative reviews are faked. Sellers pay users to leave negative reviews to competitors.

EDIT: Funny how completely broken and anti-customer the Amazon review system is given that the #1 leadership principle at Amazon [1] is the following:

"Customer Obsession - Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers."

Just goes to show how these things are always BS.

[1] https://www.aboutamazon.com/working-at-amazon/our-leadership...

If I were inflating my rating with 5-star reviews, I'd also want some 1-star reviews to complain about inconsequential things like "the coffee machine's cord was only 5 meters long" or "it was a bit louder than I expected, waking me up more than I wanted during my morning routine."

No you wouldn't. 1 star reviews will tank your average star rating and increase your NCX, which are far more important than the off chance someone reads your negative reviews closely.

Unless you're selling 20 dollar bills for $5, you'll naturally get negative reviews.

I've had to pull several products off Amazon because someone left an early, nonsense review that killed sales. (E.g. "Fast and easy" - 2 stars or "Works perfectly. Thanks!" - 1 star)

Perhaps their definition of their customer has evolved to focus on resellers/manufacturers, and we, the public consumers, are simply a crop to be farmed?

If you took one look at the forums for resellers / manufacturers, they'd laugh at the idea Amazon cares about them at all.

Shopping on Amazon is like shopping in Chinatown now. The funny thing is, you know Amazon has the data and must be optimizing in the short term. This shit must be working, for some definition of working. Personally, anything that touches my child, or goes in my body, is not allowed to be bought on Amazon.

Most companies collapse from within, they don't get trounced by competitors. Competitors come along with a new angle that seems innocuous at first, but then turns out to entail 'the thing people want'.

It's very, very easy from an operational perspective to focus on the data-driven decision to sell crap, to ignore fake reviews etc. because that's what sells 'today'.

But an A/B test (short view) does not capture users recurring behaviour, and response to that experience overall.

If the A/B test encompassed a 'year long study' they might find a different set of data: upset customers who don't come back.

Which could lead to systematic 'sand in the engine' that could seriously erode Amazon.

The only way this would be resolved really is if Bezos himself makes a pretty firm commitment to it, which is hard obviously because 'quality' is a difficult thing to put a number on.

That said, it's hard to conclude how truly damaging this is. Once people are hooked on something, it takes an alternative for them to change their behaviour.

The alternative: Target.com. Once you try it, you’ll never go back. Amazon is still where I buy a wireless mouse, or a phone holder for my car, but big electronics come from B&H or Newegg, diapers and kids toys and baby food comes from Target.


They have gone the way of being a market and are not to be trusted. They robbed me out of $630 through a combination of fraud and my CC company being wankers.

The 'alternative' is just every other e-commerce store.

Once a lot of other larger companies figure out how to do cheap and quick delivery ... what advantage will Amazon have?

People think Amazon has a leg on Wallmart. I'm not so sure!

Wallmart has a 'distribution centre' (aka a store) only 5 miles from every American!

Wallmart already has the wheels greased for the things we really need.

Wallmart can sell razors, groceries and diapers every day while Amazon sells the not-so-common stuff.

I'm amazed Wallmart hasn't figured it out already ...

The part walmart hasn't figured out is how to get people to think of going to walmart.com in the first place.

I used it when my printer broke and I needed one. Same day pickup for free. They list dozens of printers, but it was easy to sort on ones that were in stock in my local store so I could get same day pickup. I went just a few minutes out of my way, and had a working printer when I got home from work. Sure on amazon I might have bought a different printer with some nice to have feature, but I wouldn't have got it today. Target is just as easy (maybe easier).

I don't know why anyone would look to Amazon first anymore. Sure for obscure things amazon (or ebay), is more likely to have it. Even then I go to obscureProduct.com where the staff knows something about their products and I can read their buyers guide and get a good brand (They probably are biased to selling some brand which is worth more profit to them, but they at least keep me away from the junk brands which is in itself worth far more to me than a few buck extra profit to them)

My personal theory is that they are doing this very deliberately... they view “selling stuff” as a lousy business and AWS as the real business, and are just maximizing short term retail profits to invest in AWS.

That’s a bad theory. They’re forever optimizing how people buy things, and people will always buy things.

> The funny thing is, you know Amazon has the data and must be optimizing in the short term.

Why? How do we "know" they have the data? How do we "know" that can act on whatever data they have? People here seem to ascribe a level of omniscience to tech giants that I'm not certain they deserve.

Are you seriously proposing Amazon doesn't realize what's going on with their review systems?

Knowing the problem exists isn't the same as having granular data on the scope and nature of the problem. That said... I'd bet they have some data.

No, as the sibling's post indicates I am suggesting they don't have sufficient data to bound or correct the problem. It's a problem of getting the correct data, then extracting signal from that data. People here seem to be trivializing that part.

Mostly because the dozen-or-so data-analytics services that AWS provides are all architecturally of the "scratching-your-own-novel-itch" shape rather than the "best-practices, well-known-standard" or "bug-for-bug-clone-of-the-thing-some-other-cloud-vendor-is-doing" shape. Amazon built DynamoDB, acquired Redshift, etc. to use them.

None of that tells me they have identified the correct metrics to collect in order to identify the extent of the problem, to identify the specific listings or reviews that are fraudulent, or to use in a system to suppress the fraud. They certainly have the infrastructure to do it, but that is the (relatively) easy part.

You think everyone on the Internet except people at Amazon knows about this?

I don't think "everyone on the Internet" has any idea as to the true scope of the problem, nor do I that no they have a scalable solution.

> People here seem to ascribe a level of omniscience to tech giants that I'm not certain they deserve.

I'd describe it as a level of basic knowledge about their own product. You don't have to be a god to analyze Amazon's data, especially if you're Amazon.

Assuming you know what data to collect and store. That isn't a trivial task. Observability on a large and complex system like this is hard. I don't think it is reasonable to assume it's easy for Amazon, and thus their inaction is based on exploiting this bad behavior.

Tooth past, soap, food items like protein bars are so easy to order off the site. It is hard to imagine the challenge of hunting these items down in crowed stores to shop them my self. There are lots of items I regularly buy that are not review dependent and I will keep ordering them for the long term.

Right, but do you get that some of these items are counterfeit? And your Colgate toothpaste may be Bob’s toothpaste from Guangzhou?

Those are widely counterfeited items on Amazon.

I drew a similar line recently -- no more buying pills or stuff for my dog on Amazon. I wonder if everyone did this how much it would ding their bottom line.

I recommend that you copy and paste the Amazon link to https://reviewmeta.com/ and https://www.fakespot.com/ to see how many of the reviews are actually legit.

Was just about to post fakespot.com -- I've used it to great benefit in spotting some of my purchases that didn't have a reasonably priced, stand-out name brand to choose from (HDMI -> RCA audio splitters, or as mentioned in this thread, good bluetooth wireless earbuds.

Amazon is consistently allowing multi-hundred unverified 5 star reviews for new products to persist, and my wife and I are starting to drift to other, more reputable resources. After a decade+ of Prime membership, this is a really disappointing betrayal of trust.

Any browser extensions that use reviewmeta or fakespot so that I don’t have to cut and paste the URL?

Ideally I’d like to simply filter out all fake reviews and recalculate the stars rating.

Spoiler: It gets an 'F'. Color me surprised.

The issue is that reviews for the same SKU are shared across all sellers. That doesn't even address the fact that some products have quality issues per color. They also mix the inventory together for efficiency in logistics. Once you do that, you admit that you don't care because you can't get the pee out of the pool.

It seems like it should be easy to track the content coming in with an additional barcode sticker. You scan that barcode when the order is fulfilled and based on the user review/return/etc. ban that seller for counterfeit goods. It just seems like Amazon isn't interested in solving this because it becomes fairly trivial. I think the long term goal is to erode confidence in now Amazon branded products as they have different SKUs. Additionally, most people are lazy and won't bother returning something < $25 and will just pitch it but Amazon still collects their fees.


A friend in the ecommerce industry tells of some pretty dark patterns - some companies won't allow negative reviews to be posted at all. Attempts to leave negative reviews trigger chat or other communication methods instead of posting the review.

Amazon also won't allow most negative reviews - I've had many 1 star reviews denied by their automated system, but this has never happened with a 5 star review.

Exactly. If you go to Amazon's seller forum you can see how those little snowflakes who call themselves merchants complain about the fact that they couldn't remove all the negative reviews. I guess in the end they all find their ways to get rid of negative reviews.

I mean, sometimes, it's justified. Should a negative review about a wireless-charging bug in a phone stick around once the manufacturer pushes out an update to the firmware that makes the bug go away?

This is why app stores only show reviews/scores for the current version of the app. There's no such thing as "versions" of a product, though. (Or, well, there are product revisions with distinct UPC codes, but an OTA firmware update doesn't qualify as one, and yet should be a new "version" for the purposes of reviews.)

Shouldn't the app maker have to prove that the new version doesn't have the same problem?

It's not justified, it's just a way to swindle consumers.

Reviews are typically dated, so yes, they should stick around.

Amazon went from my go to reliable source of basically everything that wasn't perishable to not. I used to have packages from Amazon coming weekly and daily and took full advantage of my Prime membership. Now, I can't even remember the last time I bought anything from Amazon. I'm simply afraid I'll get a fake, even if it says ship and sold by Amazon.

I hope Amazon sees this and many similar complaints. I feel the greater population will catch on to this in due time and they could very well fall from their throne. In fact, if they don't, I hope they do.

In the meantime, I'm more than willing to pay more get products directly from the manufactures and stores in person (e.g. Apple, Apple Store, Best Buy, Target, Nike, etc...).

Not sure how this affects their other holdings such as Zappos.

>> There are so many fake reviews on Amazon that the "average" stars for a product are no longer reliable indicators of quality.

There are two universes in Amazon. Recognized name brands, and unrecognized name brands.

In the recognized name brand universe, the reviews are pretty reliable.

In the unrecognized name brand universe, the reviews are not reliable. Generally speaking, with the no-name cheap stuff, you are generally getting what you pay for, irrespective of the review scores.

When I did incentivized reviews (stopped after rule change), I always gave a score based on value for the price. Four stars for a $20 pair of headphones should not be the same as four stars for a $300 pair of headphones, because the expectations for quality should be much different at the higher price point.

Generally speaking, though, the vast majority of the no-name stuff I got was pretty good for their selling price (but I was also picky about what I accepted for review). At most, I only got one or two pieces of junk, and scored those products accordingly.

I always search for negative information first. When using a search engine for a product I always append "sucks", "broken", etc.

Generally speaking three star reviews are the most informative to me.

Sellers know people do this and plant fake, negative reviews on competitors at the same time they give themselves good reviews.

I noticed this once when repurchasing a space heater I'd bought multiple times in the past. Several reviews mentioned the temperature sensor failing, but this particular heater had no temperature sensor.

That isn't the only product I've seen with suspicious bad reviews, and I've read pieces of investigative journalism that confirm it's fairly widespread.

"Sucks" is one of the true casualties of today's PC climate. Used to be you could get all sorts of great opposing opinions with that search keyword, particularly in IT.

Sure, it's around here in there. But back in the day if you were going to write about why you didn't like something, you were going to write an article about why it "sucks".

That sucks.

Ironically, I haven't bought off Amazon for years, and have never left a review.

I've been seeing all of these posts about gamafication of Amazon reviews and don't understand why Amazon just don't limit the reviews on a product to people who've actually purchased it from Amazon?

Ironically, I came across a small eligibility requirement, (but otherwise seems to allow reviews by anyone for anything):

> To contribute to Customer features (for example, Customer Reviews, Customer Answers, Idea Lists) or to follow other contributors, you must have spent at least $50 on Amazon.com using a valid credit or debit card in the past 12 months. Promotional discounts don't qualify towards the $50 minimum.

Amazon's clearly able to disallow reviews unless you've bought it from them. They're also big enough to add incentives to people who have purchases (eg. maybe 1-5% of product value that goes toward future purchases), to encourage reviews. They could even gamify the 1-5% based upon the "I've found this helpful" response, encouraging quality reviews.

I just don't get it. Have I missed something?

>There are so many fake reviews on Amazon that the "average" stars for a product are no longer reliable indicators of quality.

Is it just me, or is it harder to sort by critical nowadays? I find I have to click into all reviews to reveal the option for "all critical".

And recently when looking at one product, when I tried to pull the "negative" reviews, they included several five star reviews.

I'm seriously considering ditching Prime and signing up for a Target credit card - there's no annual fee, you get the same prime style free shipping, and there's a base level of quality to the products at Target that just doesn't seem to be present in Amazon's offerings.

Amazon needs to move to verified reviews only, tied to a purchase on amazon and with a unique credit card on the account. They could cut out paid reviews with some effort if they took steps to verify identity.

We've been noticing a big surge in the number of really inauthentic looking reviews - I'm talking 1,000 written over just a few days, 100% unverified, and some obvious manipulation going on with the product versions. Here are a few examples. I just don't understand how Amazon isn't catching this low-hanging fruit.

Here are just a few examples:

https://www.amazon.com/VOWSVOWS-Microphone-Earphones-Headpho... https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07MF81QMS https://www.amazon.com/VOWSVOWS-Microphone-Earphones-Headpho... https://www.amazon.com/Headphones-Microphone-Earphones-Compa...

Amazon is the new Alibaba. It’s full of cheap Chinese junk and products from quality brands that actually have a company website are becoming rare.

Honestly, I don’t know why fake Amazon reviews are not more of an issue. This really is a huge problem that should be getting covered in mainstream media the way Facebook is scrutinised about privacy. Millions of people are being swindled out of real money. Amazon needs to be held accountable to fix this.

I got also very annoyed by that to the point where I spent more time filtering fake reviews than the cheap product is worth. I always start npw by remembering myself that a physical shop would not give me any reviews, but also often the same bad quality to an even higher price.

One-star reviews are the best signal I can find for product quality. They will let you know if there is a repeatable issue with trustworthy incentives. If there are more 2 star reviews than 1 star reviews and there is no pattern in the 1 star reviews, that's a great sign.

One-star reviews and the date the item was posted on Amazon are my go-to.

I wish Amazon would separate verified reviews (actually shipped item from Amazon Warehouse to this Amazon account who is writing a review) from unverified reviews.

Does anyone know why they don't do this?

> I wish Amazon would separate verified reviews (actually shipped item from Amazon Warehouse to this Amazon account who is writing a review) from unverified reviews.

Honestly, that's a useless metric. Since banning incentivized reviews, the situation is actually _worse_ than it was before.

All of the vendors who were sending out products for incentivized reviews now reimburse reviewers after they buy the product and leave a review, which means the review gets a "Verified Purchase" tag. This is against the rules, but it's happening.

In the age of incentivized reviews, those reviews did not have a "Verified Purchase" tag.

Source: Used to be an incentivized reviewer (stopped after rule change).

Doesn’t matter, won’t solve anything. The fake reviewers will email people and tell them to buy the product and they’ll be reimbursed. I’ve gotten a few emails asking me to do this (would never of course). They even explicitly mention that you need to buy it so it gets a verified tag. They’re not even trying to hide the scam anymore, Amazon doesn’t care.

There's a solution to this. Reviewers are anonymous to the sellers. Sellers should not be able to link a review to a purchase.

That wont stop them. They still require proof of your review before they refund the other 50% to you.

I don't think there's really a solution at all. As long as people are free to do outside deals there's always going to be review manipulation.

The one thing that could help this is Amazon getting rid of third party sellers or go the route Target announced today and only partner with trusted companies.

There's also confusion between when a product is being reviewed, or a seller. Buyers often leave a bad review meant for a seller to the product itself.

So, a good product, with multiple sellers, might get dinged due to one bad seller.

Or, one bad seller out of four sellers is shipping counterfeits. Because of commingling, all sellers and the product get tarnished.

I don't think this is intentional but fake reviews could be helping amazon's ad business (one of the fastest growing units within amazon). Here's what I've observed:

1. Mom-and-mom brand buys fake reviews

2. Mom-and-mom brand displaces well-known brands on amazon search

3. Well-known brand buys amazon ads to appear higher in search than shit brands with fake reviews

Not sure how much the negative reviews are useful.

It's not uncommon to hear about folks targeting competitors with lower star reviews as just getting 5* reviews isn't enough to stand out.

Even the 1 star reviews are fake sometimes. I feel like some of the competition in the space buy fake 1 star reviews on competitor products.

Actually number of 1-2 star reviews vs time product been listed might be an interesting indicator.

But then - it maybe competitor efforts of course.

Fake reviews move product, otherwise Amazon would only let you review products you had ordered via Amazon.

A healthy combination of Fakespot and Wirecutter goes a long way to fighting this.

Same here. I look for 2 stars as 1 star is emotional.

Last year I bought a set of cheap Bluetooth headphones on Amazon which I use on a daily basis. It's obvious they have an affiliate program because I often seem on those daily deal roundup posts that a lot of tech blogs now have.

Recently, I've been getting emails from the vendors asking me to leave a review in return for a free product. Here is a copy and paste of one:

Dear Customer,

Thank you for purchasing our (HEADPHONES). Are you satisfied with the Bluetooth headphones that you bought? If there is any question or concern regarding product quality, please don't hesitate to contact us first.

If your (BRAND) experience has been everything you hoped it would be, share it with the world! Meanwhile, to express our sincere thanks for your kind support, we are more than happy to send you a (FREE PRODUCT) for free if you are willing to leave us a review since this would be very helpful for other customers who are also interested in this product.

If you are interested in a (FREE PRODUCT), please get back to us with the screenshot of your review.

Note: you can click the link below directly to leave your positive review: (LINK TO AMAZON TO LEAVE REVIEW)

Please rest assured that we’ll arrange (FREE PRODUCT) to you ASAP after we receive the screenshot of your review together with your shipping address.

Any questions, please kindly let us know.

Have a nice day!

Amazon seller here. It is against the terms of service to ask for positive reviews. It is also against TOS to offer a free product in exchange for a review.

You can, however, ask customers for a review in a neutral way. For example, "Would you be open to leaving us a brief, honest product review?" That is how we ask it.

Some companies, especially supplements companies, have a funnel that gives you a "second month free" in exchange for privately sharing product feedback and your email address with them. Here's how it works for one brand I purchased from recently:

- You receive your first purchase

- You go to a landing page and enter your name and order ID

- They send you an email after 2 weeks asking for your private feedback of the product.

- Once you provide this private feedback, they will send you the free product.

- Before you leave the survey, they ask you if you are open to leaving a product review. They ask in a neutral way and are explicit that it is completely optional. This is to be clear that they are not giving you a product in exchange for a review—you already got your free product for sharing private feedback.

You could argue that this is a gray area, for sure. But for small brands, reviews are incredibly important, and it helps to be able to market to past customers (which Amazon does not allow you to do through their system). Getting a 2nd month free can help build brand loyalty.

Personally, I don't have a problem with this type of funnel, as long as it adheres completely to Amazon's TOS and doesn't annoy or deceive the customer. The customer has to feel right about writing the review, not like they were manipulated. It's very easy to get that wrong, and most sellers who try do get it wrong.

Note that we do not have such a funnel set up for our product as of this writing.

[Edited one sentence for clarity]

>If you are interested in a (FREE PRODUCT), please get back to us with the screenshot of your review.

>Note: you can click the link below directly to leave your positive review: (LINK TO AMAZON TO LEAVE REVIEW)

>Please rest assured that we’ll arrange (FREE PRODUCT) to you ASAP after we receive the screenshot of your review together with your shipping address.

It'd be interesting to see what they do if you left a neutral review. (Eg: "Three stars. Cheap build quality but decent for the price I guess").

I suspect they're trying to maintain the illusion they're not paying for positive reviews, just for reviews.

If they're dumb enough to reply back over email that only positive reviews qualify, you could probably forward that to a regulator.

Can't you edit the review or just take it back once you've received (FREE PRODUCT)?

It's a numbers game. Most people aren't going to go back and edit it. They'll leave their 5 star review and hold their hand out for FREE PRODUCT.

I looked back at a review I wrote a little less than a month ago and I still have the option to edit it, so yeah I suppose you could.

I just recently bought a pair of ANC Bluetooth headphones and received the same email. One interesting thing to note is that I received the email from an outlook address instead of an address affiliated with the company. It was already flagged as spam, though - I only found it by chance. They did offer a free pair of upgraded headphones instead of the same pair, which is a nice touch I suppose.


"In addition, the order requires the defendants to notify Amazon, Inc. that they purchased Amazon reviews of their Quality Encapsulations Garcinia Cambogia capsules and to identify to Amazon the purchased reviews."

Online reviews don't work without trust. Maintaining trust is done by Amazon in this case, but sometimes the job is too big, especially at this scale. Amazon needs better tools perhaps, but the judgement of a court, backed up by a state? Damn, that is a powerful way to ensure there is some minimum level of trust in the marketplace.

I'm against too much government interference in the marketplace, but it's in everyone's interest to increase trust in the marketplace rather than let it become a market for lemons.

The thing is that trust with Amazon is just not about the product reviews.

I have been genuinely amazed by Amazon service, delivery and choice but those days are over.

Years ago some right on woman ticked me off for recommending her a book that you could just get on Amazon. At the time I thought her attitude was a bit extreme - essentially she was already of the boycott Amazon persuasion. At the time I could not care less for bookshops, that battle had been lost and Amazon gave choice, delivery and price that couldn't be argued with.

Years later I have almost came to this woman's conclusion. What has changed? There are lots of small trust things. It seems that Amazon will gladly tender and take on the most odious work for the spy agencies that the rest of Silicon Valley would not touch with a bargepole. It doesn't appear that Amazon want to pay any taxes, which is all very clever but I would prefer to see a society where businesses pay taxes and individuals don't. But, despite these problems, I will still want Amazon stuff.

Now if the reviews are not trustworthy and I can't trust them to have the best prices then that is it really, I stop being a customer of Amazon and, a decade after crazy woman scorned me for buying from Amazon, I become of the opinion that she was right all along with all her talk of 'illegal monopoly' and 'tax avoidance'.

Trust is a fragile belief-y thing and when it has gone it has gone.


Identities in comment sections have always been fake and anonymous and this is a good thing even if it results in occasional spam reviews. Legal action to enforce real IDs would make the internet worse.

I don't get it. I'd expect highly technical forums to value anonymity despite its drawbacks but I'm continuously disappointed.

Identities in comment sections have always been fake and anonymous and this is a good thing even if it results in occasional spam reviews

Comments are not the same as reviews.

This is why Amazon, for example, has "verified purchase" status for reviews. Reviews can influence a buying decision and are integrated as part of a platform. Comments can influence a buying decision but they live outside the platform and can always be made anonymously on any other platform.

The issue in this case was someone purchased fraudulent reviews on someone else's platform where the platform's integrity is severely diminished through that fraud.

I support anonymity, as I said I'm in favour of less government interference in markets, but in this case, we need a bigger stick because Amazon and other marketplace platforms don't quite have the technical tools to fight fraudulent reviews.

Also I don't think there's a mention of using real ids?

I don't see where the parent post (or FTC page) mentioned real IDs?

> Finally, the order imposes a judgment of $12.8 million, which will be suspended upon payment of $50,000 to the Commission and the payment of certain unpaid income tax obligations. If the defendants are later found to have misrepresented their financial condition to the FTC, the full amount of the judgment will immediately become due.

That's an interesting way of structuring the penalty.

I wonder how enforceable it would be.

Why wouldn't it be enforceable? It's a court order.

It's also quite standard: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/blogs/business-blog/2016/03/...

My apologies. I should have said "recoverable" rather than "enforceable."

I would assume that if a company is in trouble with the FTC, it's probably not in the best financial shape after paying even the costs associated with the suspended judgment. So if the FTC finds that the company made an omission and the full judgment comes due, will it actually recover that money? Or is the point to just fine them out of existence, without concern for actually recovering the money?

If the FTC discovers they've hidden assets, they can go back to court, reinstate the full penalty, and go after those assets. I suspect there'd be additional criminal charges like perjury available to them, as well.

> Or is the point to just fine them out of existence, without concern for actually recovering the money?

That’s my read. The FTC seems to be hanging the sword of Damocles in a very public way. If this company doesn’t comply, a press release describing how the US government is absolutely wrecking them is probably worth not recovering all the judgement.

I still don't understand why Amazon has done so little to combat the plague of fake reviews. It seems like it's something that's going to blow up eventually and bite them.

Along those lines: why do they still value reviews that aren't associated with a purchase? This is the logical first step.

I think you can assume that Amazon operates in its own best interest. If fake reviews were hurting sales, it'd stop them within weeks. I'm guessing, for the time being, they're helping sales. Although, I haven't bought anything on Amazon in 3 years now, and I never will again. I think this problem is creating HUGE long-term downsides. Those are a lot tougher to calculate/quantify than the short-term benefits, though.

I wonder what the actual outcome is for sales - fake reviews and counterfeit products have driven me to purchase a certain class of items directly from the manufacturer and not on Amazon.

Maybe most people don't bother with this though?

I no longer have amazon prime-had an awful experience with getting shit shipped, and come to think of it most were cheap alibaba electronics with markup.

but when I need some cables or other mundane things, it's convenient, although I don't really need it ASAP TMR like with Prime. I found that it puts a lot of pressure on the couriers and it just ruins the experience for everybody involved.

The end of this quarter for Amazon will disappoint.

monoprice.com used to be better for cables and stuff like that... haven't use them in a while though..

Because it's a really, really hard problem to solve. The sheer scale of Amazon combined with razor thin margins and the fact that Amazon isn't even the selling party on most products means that they can't just throw a bunch of manual labor at the problem.

It's a similar problem to YouTube still hosting tons of copyrighted material. Fraud is just super hard to fight.

It has to be somewhere between "not enough resources to fix" and "wow, we are making a ton of money off this 'problem!'"

There are so many patterns of low-hanging fruit:

"I haven't used it yet but it looks great"

"Seems ok"

"It's useful"

"The shipping was slow"

On any given product with any measure of popularity, probably 10-20% of reviews consist of those formats. One-word sentences with some kind of bland/useless assertion.

You're telling me the people who have massive clusters of machines and who resell tools for machine learning can't at least pick off the easiest 20% of shitty or fake reviews? Hell, give me two days, a few regexes, and a script and I'll do it myself. It's really that easy.

They just don't care.

That said, yes, beyond that lower-hanging fruit, the problem is insanely hard to tackle. But why not crowdsource it? People posting reviews saying "Sandy Hook was a liberal hoax" on a book about the Sandy Hook shooting could be flagged and marked for review.

> But why not crowdsource it?

And now you have two problems :). Reviews themselves are already crowdsourcing. And any kind of crowdsourcing can and will be gamed as soon as someone can make money out of it.

If it's that easy to fix, and helpful, a chrome or firefox extension seems warranted. Do you have two days to spare? Let me know when you're finished, I'll definitely use it. ;-)

It would be much harder to fix on the browser side, because you'd have to page through all the reviews (sometimes tens of thousands) and remove fakes, then re-adjust the star amounts.

That said, it could be done...would probably take more than two days without direct access to the data though!

Because 1) having any reviews at all drives purchases because of a social proof effect (see Influence - Cialdini). 2) Amazon are not liable because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (platform operators shall not be treated like the content publishers who create information on those platform).

Here's a hypothesis: people are more likely to buy a product when they see it has a large number of reviews and ultimately Amazon cares about moving product.

> Along those lines: why do they still value reviews that aren't associated with a purchase? This is the logical first step.

Sometimes I review products on Amazon that I purchased elsewhere to help others who might be considering the product. If we didn't have fraud, those would be really useful.

But your non-purchase review doesn't prove that the actual item sold on Amazon isn't a fake. That's the whole point of knock-offs. They want you to purchase on the expectation that reviews/experience of the real item will be all the "advertising" needed to sell their knock-off.

If you haven't purchased the item, the review should not be allowed to be made.

Yes like I said in a world where we don’t have fake products and fake reviews, there is value in a review from someone who didn’t purchase.

Amazon still pretends we are in a world without fake reviews and fake products which is why they allow it.

Amazon even blocks legitimate negative reviews toward its own products... They will do whatever it takes to increase revenues.

Title would be more descriptive if "Indie Retail Website" was replaced with "Amazon.com".

What I find most notable here is that the FTC's settlement is with the manufacturer/seller, and doesn't seem to affect the company that wrote the reviews (amazonverifiedreviews.com).

I think they should be forced to list the number of items returned right next to the number of reviews.

This is an interesting case since it has the potential to impact other larger entities such as Amazon (Goods), Google (Apps), Apple (Apps).

The issue with fake paid reviews is extremely difficult to gauge and act upon. On one end, the owner of the marketplace doesn't want their place to be seeing as 'full of fakes' on the other end, they don't want to be seeing as censoring legit feedback. How do you know who is who? The second you figure that out, the 'bad actors' will find different, innovative ways to break your system.

On another side, because review has become a huge part of the decision people take, new entrants are finding it harder to get a piece of the market (even if they are legit) without paying someone to provide reviews.

Finding the right balance in this area will be a continuous effort on all sides, we will likely need better independent customer review sites, the marketplaces will need to find better ways to gauge what is real and what is not, the customers will need to be proactive and check information from different angles, businesses will need to find new ways to prove their legitimacy to get the trust of clients.

Worst part is this creates a rift in the market where vendors are not incentivized to produce quality products, but rather to manipulate and game. Who could have possibly thought that A single entity handling so much of the nation's purchasing would end up with terrible oversight in quality?

That's what "business" is now. People already have everything they could possibly need - food, shelter, and basic necessities. "Business" is now a game of tricking people into wanting things they don't need and trampling over each other for profits.

Not clear if this is mostly a "wonder food false advertisement" enforcement, or a "false review" enforcement.

Maybe this was an easy "starter case" to advertise (ha ha) the new FTC position.

The FDA usually peruses issues of false health claims, so I'm guessing the latter.

I was worried for a moment since the company, "Cure Encapsulations" sounds familiar to the product line I frequently buy "Pure Encapsulations", luckily they are not the same.

What's interesting is that they only seem to have one product on Amazon: https://amzn.to/2Ef2XH9, for which they are Amazon's top choice for the category. I wouldn't be surprised if one of their competitors made the complaint to the FCC.

The wrong actor is being targeted here: Amazon is just as culpable for encouraging bad behavior.

Amazon has their own "Vine" program to do the same thing.

Can such problems ever really be solved without associating every online account with a person's identity (at least internally) and enforcing one account per person per social platform?

Seems like there’s a huge business opportunity for trusted, independent review websites. Or for a company that certifies such websites as trusted.

Until the trusted, independent review websites are paid to let some things slide. It is a very difficult environment to maintain.

There's an obvious problem with the way we are trying to gauge with a 5 star rating system from the Middle Ages.

But what would you use instead?

Crowdsourced reviews are problematic (often but not always lacking context). Paid reviews make them worthless.

Perhaps this is one use of a blockchain which could add credibility to reviews.

Still by and large I prefer independent professional reviews (combined with authentic crowdsourced reviews), the problem with these, like CR, is that they’re not scalable to thousands of new products periodically, so we have to rely on crowdsourced reviews that don’t include a “trustworthiness” quotient.

How on earth would blockchain help?

Didn't you hear? Blockchains solve every issue in the world. You just put your stuff on the blockchain and it all works.

Tying buyer to review, although not perfect, in that you could still have a confederate problem, it would help.

This is defeated by simply giving people amazon gift cards to purchase the product to submit the review. I've seen many reviews state that this is already happening: a review in exchange for the product.

>Perhaps this is one use of a blockchain which could add credibility to reviews.

Amazon offers the option to only view reviews from confirmed purchasers.

The problem is that people often receive free products in exchange for the review.

"The blockchain" would show that the buyer sent BTC to the seller, but it does nothing to address the fact the seller can put more things into a box and ship them after the review is posted.

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