Best-selling products and brands on Amazon Marketplace display reviews from buyers saying they have been offered vouchers, freebies and money in exchange for posting five-star reviews and removing negative ones as the tech giant fails to adequately protect shoppers from fake and incentivised review practices, a Which? investigation has revealed.
The consumer champion looked at dozens of popular products and brands on Amazon Marketplace and by using search terms such as ‘bribe’ and ‘incentive’ found repeated evidence of customers reporting that sellers had approached them with a view to manipulating the rating they left for the product.
Ahead of Amazon Prime Day 2021 (21 and 22 June), when many subscribers will be looking to grab themselves a bargain in the sales, Which? looked at Amazon ‘Best Sellers’ – lists of the most popular products based on sales – on the online marketplace’s website.
Five of the nine Amazon Best Sellers product categories that Which? analysed showed repeated evidence of incentivisation – smartwatches, dash cams, Bluetooth speakers, in-ear headphones and surveillance video equipment.
Twelve products (24%) across the top 10 best sellers in those five categories had reviews from customers stating they were being asked to post five-star reviews or alter or remove their negative feedback. Several reported being chased via email to do so, while others said they were sent cards alongside their products requesting positive reviews in exchange for vouchers or free gifts. Seven (58%) of those items were Amazon’s Choice listings – the platform’s coveted recommendation label that is influenced by high ratings.
One customer told Which? he could not believe the persistence of one seller in trying to get his negative product review on Amazon changed or deleted – suggesting it is highly lucrative for sellers to do so.
Tim Winkle, 64, purchased a Teaisiy USB webcam last year and gave it a two-star review due to its poor quality. The third-party seller behind the product then emailed him asking him to alter or delete his negative review in return for a £10 gift voucher. After he refused, he then received a series of other offers by email over three months, reaching a peak of £50.
Which? also dug deeper into the brands whose listings included accusations of incentivised reviews and found 12 ‘repeat offenders’ where sellers were called out for using similar manipulative tactics across other products in their ranges. It was not clear in some cases whether these sellers were acting independently or on behalf of the brand.
The problem was reported most prominently on Victure products, with 11 of its 29 (38%) product listings containing accusations of incentivisation tactics. These items included a baby monitor, wi-fi booster and wireless security cameras.
Victure, alongside Enacfire, are two brands that have also featured in previous Which? investigations as a result of suspicious review activity, and it is concerning that the brands are appearing repeatedly, despite Which? reporting its findings to Amazon.
This latest investigation comes after reports in May 2021 that Amazon had taken action to suspend the selling privileges of major tech suppliers Aukey and Mpow.
Which? found numerous examples of people writing negative reviews on Amazon to shine a light on unscrupulous behaviour from sellers. Three Peztio webcam buyers stated that the seller had offered them £40 to delete their negative reports of the product, which had an overall rating of 4.2 out of five stars. One Peztio customer said they thought the seller was “clearly more interested in editing the public record than … improving their product.”
Many other customers gave five-star reviews alongside confessions about their motivation for doing so. One ASWEE listing for a smartwatch had two reviews from people stating they had been sent a prompt to write a great review in exchange for a £15 voucher. One went as far as to say: “the only reason I have posted five stars is because I want my £15 voucher as compensation.”
A number of Victure customers said that they had been offered complimentary gifts in exchange for five-star reviews, including an SD card.
Misleading reviews are a big problem on many of the world’s biggest platforms and Which? has also previously uncovered evidence of fake and suspicious review activity on eBay, Facebook and Google. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced its investigation into major websites that host reviews in May 2020. Yet more than a year on it appears Amazon is still falling at the first hurdle by failing to stop review manipulation on some of its best-selling products.
Amazon has a specific Anti-Manipulation policy for customer reviews stating that any attempts to manipulate reviews, including by directly or indirectly contributing false, misleading or inauthentic content, is “strictly prohibited.” The platform said that if it determines a seller or brand has attempted to manipulate reviews, it may immediately “suspend or terminate your Amazon privileges, remove reviews, and delist related products.”
Which? believes that stronger action is needed to address the ongoing problems caused by misleading reviews on online marketplaces and other platforms.
The consumer champion is calling for the CMA’s investigation to quickly get to the bottom of the problem of fake and misleading reviews. If it finds that sites that host reviews are not doing enough to detect and prevent misleading reviews, then strong action must be taken to prevent increasing numbers of consumers from being misled.
Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?, said:
“It’s really concerning that consumers are raising the alarm on misleading tactics by sellers being used on best-selling Amazon products – particularly at a time when more people are shopping online than ever before because of the pandemic.
“Amazon must, as an absolute minimum, do more to enforce its own policies – especially when evidence of manipulation is hidden in plain sight in its Best Sellers lists.
“The CMA needs to urgently get to the bottom of the problem of misleading and fake reviews and be prepared to take strong action to ensure consumers can trust the reviews that influence billions of pounds of spending every year.”
Notes to editors
In May 2021, Which? scoured Amazon’s bestseller lists in nine popular tech categories including smartwatches, in-ear headphones, dash cams and Bluetooth speakers. Across the 10 best sellers in each of the categories it searched the products’ reviews for buyer references to ‘bribery’, ‘incentivisation’, ‘incentive’ and ‘bribe’ in their feedback.
The 12 brands Which? found with more than one product impacted by incentivised reviews:
Tim Winkle, 64, bought a Teaisiy USB webcam in June 2020 so he could attend video conference meetings via Zoom.
He spotted the reviews on Amazon looked ‘very good’ but also noticed there ‘were some lower reviews’ as well but opted to purchase the webcam anyway.
When the product arrived, Tim found the quality was ‘very poor’ and therefore returned the webcam directly to Amazon. Tim ‘promptly’ received his money back and left a two-star review outlining his experience with the product.
In February 2021, Tim began receiving emails from the seller requesting that he delete his negative review in exchange for an Amazon gift card worth £10. When he refused this, the seller then offered Tim a £15 voucher, followed by £20, £30, £40 and £50 all of which he rejected.
The seller assured Tim it had ‘changed to another manufacturer’ to ensure the item’s quality improved and told him it was a ‘very small business that depends on reviews’ and would ‘not survive without [his] help.’
Tim said he had ‘no idea’ reviews could be manipulated in this manner.
His review of the Teaisiy webcam, as well as the listing for the item itself has since been removed from Amazon.
Advice to consumers:
Be more sceptical of brands you haven’t heard of. While some of the companies may well be honest start-ups, others attempt to take shortcuts to the top of the listings. Overwhelmingly, our research into fake reviews has found little-known or unknown brands being the main culprits. If you don’t recognise the brand, check online to see if it has a legitimate looking website, with clear contact details so you can get in touch if anything goes wrong.
Don’t just trust the overall star rating. Inspecting the comments can save you time (and money) in the long run. Although an item could have high overall reviews, there may be signs of incentivisation or other suspicious activity when you dig a little deeper. These can include: overly positive language that reads like an infomercial, and a wide selection of pictures – Which?’s investigations have found this is a common request from sellers who incentivise positive reviews.
Check the less positive reviews. Those who attempt to incentivise reviews commonly ask for five-stars, so it’s far more useful to look at four star reviews and below. Keep your eyes peeled for complaints about the item failing over time, problems specific to a particular feature that many reviewers are reporting, and signs of incentivisation – such as an offer of a reward for posting a good review. You can use the search bar to check for specific keywords if you want to dig deeper.
Rights of Reply
A spokesperson for Amazon told Which?: ‘Our objective is to ensure customers see authentic and relevant reviews so they can make better informed purchasing decisions. To do this, we use powerful machine learning tools and skilled investigators to analyse over 10m review submissions weekly, aiming to stop abusive reviews before they are ever published.
‘In addition, we continue to monitor all existing reviews for signs of abuse and quickly take action if we find an issue. We are relentless in our efforts to protect the integrity of customer reviews. We remove fake reviews and take action against anyone involved in abuse. We have won dozens of injunctions against providers of fake reviews across Europe and we won’t shy away from taking legal action.’
They added, however, that Amazon and other online retailers ‘cannot do this alone. Customers need to be able to trust the reviews they see online and the systematic manipulation of reviews needs consistent enforcement and global coordination with stronger enforcement powers given to regulators against bad actors.
‘We continue to work to protect the authenticity of customer reviews. We advise customers who doubt the credibility of a review on a product to click the Report Abuse link available below each review. We will then investigate and take necessary measures.’
An Enacfire spokesperson said: ‘I saw the reviews and [am] feeling very upset. It is absolutely damaging to our brand image. We will perform an internal investigation towards our distributors and external to those who [are] selling Enacfire products but not in our distributors list. The punishment [will] be stopping supplies to them.
‘By becoming one of our distributors and selling Enacfire products [on] Amazon, we require all of our distributors to obey all the policies from Amazon. The behavior was conducted by Amazon sellers who sell Enacfire products and our brand does not support the behavior of review manipulation, which seems to be a common problem with Amazon.’
A spokesperson for Wansview said:
‘We appreciate it that you informed us about the reviews that violate Amazon’s review policy. It is of great help to us to enhance our brand image.
‘We’ve known about the reviews you mentioned since January 2021 and have already discussed [them] with the retailer. We got to know they offered their products to improve customer satisfaction [and] to help increase the listing ratings. Due to [their] lack of policy learning, the retailer’s behaviour has violated Amazon’s policy and may mislead consumers’ brand recognition. After checking the review content, we have requested them to carefully study the Amazon policy and learn the latest Amazon rules. We urged them [to] stop such kind of review maintenance behaviour.’
‘As the brand owner, we have the responsibility to request our retailers [to] obey each platform’s selling rules and maintain consumers’ brand recognition. We will strictly request all the retailers who sell Wansview’s products to carefully study the Amazon rules immediately, and if they do not obey the policy, we will cancel their distributorship of Wansview branded items.
‘On the other hand, as the brand owner, we could improve our products’ quality to help the retailer gain customer satisfaction, offering good products and good customer support earns consumers brand stickiness. Thanks again for your email to help us regulate our retail rules and Wansview’s brand image.’
Anker / Apeman / ASWEE / Littlelf / Peztio / Popglory / Teaisiy / Tozo / Victure / Willfull / Zhuolang
Which? requested comment from these brands but had not heard back by the time of publication.
Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.
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