Flawed eBay review system dupes consumers into buying shoddy products

Ebay’s product review system has flaws that are allowing unscrupulous sellers to mislead shoppers and boost sub-standard, counterfeit and even dangerous products, Which? research reveals.

The consumer champion found sellers are easily able to exploit gaps in the system to unfairly share positive reviews for potentially legitimate products from brands like Apple and Samsung.

By using the same product ID they can attach the glowing reviews to listings for inferior, or completely different, goods – making it difficult for shoppers to tell which items are the real thing.

Which? experts looked at hundreds of listings for several categories of products on eBay, including chargers, charging cables, headphones, smoke alarms and travel adaptors.

They found products that shared the same reviews despite clearly looking different from each other in images posted by the seller. In other cases some customers had posted warnings about the quality of the items amid the suspicious positive reviews.

There were hundreds of listings for counterfeit Samsung chargers that had been subject to a Europe-wide recall alert – but customers would be unaware because the sellers had been able to adopt four and five star reviews, shared across multiple listings, to falsely lend credibility to their listing.

To establish whether these products matched up to the positive reviews, Which? ordered 20 supposedly “official” Apple and Samsung accessories, including chargers and USB cables. Despite these multiple products being listed by different sellers, they all shared the same reviews.

For the 20 products ordered, eBay showed that more than 33,300 had been sold. Yet all fell short of what a buyer would have expected based on the listing, while some were out-and-out fakes.

During the investigation, Which? identified several underlying problems suggesting the eBay product review system is flawed.

Sellers appeared to be exploiting the eBay Product ID (ePID) – a code that can be chosen by any seller listing the same item. It is designed to make it easier for sellers to list products, by pulling relevant information from a central database.

But the system means reviews from all listings claiming to be the same item can be shared, regardless of the seller or the condition of the product.

When researchers looked further into eBay’s product review guidance, they also found concerning gaps such as sellers being able to leave reviews for their own products – a practice banned by other online marketplaces including Amazon.

When Which? shared its findings with eBay, the company said it would investigate the listings and remove any that breached its policies. While some of the products have now been removed, as of Wednesday 11 March the recalled counterfeit Samsung charger listings were still live.

Which? believes the findings demonstrate fundamental flaws with eBay’s review system – leading to a lack of transparency and a risk of consumers being duped by fake and misleading reviews. It is also clear that eBay’s enforcement of current policies around product safety, counterfeit goods and action against unscrupulous sellers are proving ineffective.

Ebay must take urgent action to make its review system more robust and transparent, so that consumers can trust the customer feedback on products they are buying.

The company must also demonstrate that it can put in place an effective system to remove misleading listings, unsafe products and counterfeit goods – and take strong action to shut down sellers who try to break the rules.

The CMA estimates £23 billion a year of consumer transactions are influenced by online reviews and it has already intervened on the trading of fake reviews on eBay.

Which? is now calling for the regulator to extend its scrutiny of online platforms to include an investigation of the seriously flawed online review systems that put consumers at risk of being misled.

Natalie Hitchins, Head of Home Products and Services, Which?, said:

“Our investigation has uncovered yet another example of online reviews being manipulated to mislead people. Ebay’s product review system is confusing for consumers and could even direct them towards counterfeit or dangerous products sold by unscrupulous sellers.

“Online reviews influence billions of pounds of consumer spending each year. The CMA must now investigate how fake and misleading reviews are duping online shoppers, taking the strongest possible action against sites that fail to tackle the problem.”

Notes to editors

Examples Which? found of products sharing reviews

Which?’s researchers ordered five ‘Apple’ charging cables, 10 ‘Samsung’ charging cables and five ‘Samsung’ chargers.

Despite sharing 6,848 identical reviews, the five Apple USB cables ordered were completely different products. One had a cord-style cable with a cheap looking USB connector, while one was from a brand called “Core,” rather than Apple.

One of the Samsung chargers Which? ordered was a “used” item, which arrived without a cable. But the listing shared 90 product reviews with brand new versions of the same charger.

Another was a completely different Samsung charger and arrived with a shoddily put together cable that could be pulled out of the USB connectors – a potentially dangerous issue.

One of the Samsung cables purchased fell apart as soon as Which?’s researcher plugged it in, revealing a spot of superglue apparently used to hold it together. Yet its seller had been able to share reviews with more robust Samsung cables.

For this research, Which? analysed product reviews and no research was carried out on seller feedback.

Which? has previously found examples of similar practices, known as product merging and product variation, on Amazon: https://press.which.co.uk/whichpressreleases/bribery-hacking-and-gaming-the-system-the-tactics-used-to-post-fake-reviews-online/

Amazon has a strict policy on sellers reviewing their own items, and clearly states that neither the seller nor their family or staff members should leave feedback on their listings.

Further background on fake reviews and counterfeit goods in relation to eBay

The CMA has already examined the issue of fake review listings and groups on eBay and Facebook, where people were buying fake reviews to help boost their business or product: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/facebook-and-ebay-pledge-to-combat-trading-in-fake-reviews

Last week in the US a bipartisan group of House lawmakers on the Energy and Commerce Committee urged Amazon and eBay executives to take stronger action against third-party vendors who sell fake, stolen, or unsafe goods on their shopping websites. The issue of fake reviews was also discussed. More details here: https://energycommerce.house.gov/newsroom/press-releases/pallone-remarks-at-hearing-on-counterfeit-goods-online

Right of Reply


An eBay spokesperson said:

“We have investigated the listings shared by Which? and will remove any that breach our policies.

“However the research does not fully consider that there are distinctions between product reviews (which provide buyers with a holistic review of the same product), and seller feedback (which can be used to see specific reviews of a seller’s performance and may reflect the item’s condition).

“In addition, all listings have a ‘report’ feature. Any user can use this to report a concern with a listing, its seller, or its reviews.

“eBay enforces its Product Safety Policy at a global level using block filter algorithms that prevent unsafe products being listed, and our international security teams also work around the clock to help safeguard our marketplace.

“We take enforcement action against any seller found to be in breach of our policies, which can be in the form of a warning, suspension or ban.

“eBay runs several anti-counterfeit initiatives including the Verified Rights Owner Program (VeRO) and is continually introducing new proactive measures to combat the global trade in counterfeits. We are investigating Which’s claims on these items.

“Further information on seller feedback can be found here on eBay UK’s Help Hub.”

Press Release