Amazon’s system of customer reviews and ratings is being seriously undermined by a flood of ‘fake’ five-star reviews for products made by unknown brands, a Which? investigation has found.
The consumer champion looked at hundreds of tech products in 14 popular categories, including headphones, dash cams, fitness trackers and smart watches, checking for tell-tale signs of suspicious reviews.
Which? found that the top-rated items were dominated by unknown brands with names such as ITSHINY, Vogek and Aitalk, which in many cases had thousands of unverified reviews – meaning there is no evidence that the reviewer has even bought or used the product.
Many also had a suspiciously high number of five-star ratings that had been dumped onto Amazon’s review pages in a short space of time – another red flag suggesting the reviews are fake.
When Which? searched for headphones, all the products on the first page of results were from unknown brands and almost nine in 10 (87%) of more than 12,000 reviews for these products were from unverified purchasers.
Seven out of 10 (71%) of the headphones in the results had suspiciously perfect five-star customer ratings – and some included reviews for unrelated products such as soap dispensers.
One set of headphones, by unknown brand Celebrat, had 439 reviews. All were five-star, all unverified, and all arrived on the same day.
When we shared our findings with review experts, ReviewMeta, it believed every five star unverified review of the top 10 pairs of headphones when sorted by average customer review was fake.
Of these reviews, ReviewMeta said it doesn’t often use the word fake but their opinion is that pretty much every five star unverified review on those products is fake. It said “I’m shocked we’ve been seeing this so much on Amazon – seems so obvious and easy to prevent…”
A further examination of the authenticity of one of the unknown headphone brands, Cquang, suggested it barely seemed to exist – with the Amazon seller profile the main Google search result and the business not appearing on Google at its listed address. Many of the other unknown brands identified by the Which? experts also followed this pattern.
The analysis of smartwatches again found every device on the first page of results when sorted by average customer review was from an unknown brand – with unverified reviews making up 99% of reviews for the top four products.
Three smartwatches had a five-star average customer rating – and more than half of the reviews (61 out of 114) for the Galso Kids Smartwatch had appeared in one 24-hour period on 20 March.
The pattern was repeated with action cameras, fitness trackers and wireless security cameras – with more than nine in 10 of the top-rated products in each category made by unknown brands and boosted by a deluge of dubious reviews. Which? was unable to establish the source of the unverified reviews.
In contrast, just eight per cent of top-rated TVs and tablets and four per cent of radios were from unknown brands.
With 97% of shoppers relying on online customer reviews to help make a purchase, fake reviews are a serious problem, which can mislead customers into buying products that are not fit for purpose. The CMA estimates that £23 billion a year of UK consumer spending is potentially influenced by online reviews.
Amazon told us it uses a combination of techniques including investigation teams and automated technology to spot fake reviews. It confirmed that they use machine learning tech to analyse reviews 24/7 as well as working with social media sites to block fake reviews at the source.
Which? is advising shoppers to take extra care buying products from brands they haven’t heard of, even if they have positive customer reviews, as these are more likely to be fake or incentivised.
Where possible, look for thorough and independent reviews from credible sources.
Natalie Hitchins, Which? Head of Home Products and Services, said:
“Our research suggests that Amazon is losing the battle against fake reviews – with shoppers bombarded by dubious comments aimed at artificially boosting products from unknown brands.
“Amazon must do more to purge its websites of unreliable and fake reviews if it is to maintain the trust of its millions of customers.
“To avoid being misled and possibly buying a dud product, customers should always take reviews with a pinch of salt and look to independent and trustworthy sources when researching a purchase.”
Which? tips on how to spot a fake review:
Take extra care shopping for brands you don’t know
Scrutinise customer reviews even more carefully if you’re looking to buy a brand you don’t recognise as our research indicates they are significantly more likely to be affected by fake reviews.
Be suspicious of large numbers of reviews
If you see hundreds or even thousands of reviews – be suspicious, especially if they are largely positive.
Look for repetition
If you see the same review titles, repetitive phrases or even the same reviewer name appear more than once on a product, it’s very likely that it has been targeted by fake reviews.
Filter to check for unverified versus verified reviews
Reviews marked as ‘verified’ are those that Amazon can confirm were purchased at its website. Unverified reviews do not undergo any such checks. Therefore, unverified reviews are far easier to ‘fake’ – in that they could be written by someone who has had no experience at all with the product.
Look at the dates
If large numbers of reviews were posted on the same day, or in a short period of time, it’s very likely that they are fake – especially if they are also unverified.
Check seller profiles
Things you might be wary of are foreign seller locations, strange business names, a lack of contact details, and of course, negative reviews of the seller. Check out the seller profile page before you buy to see if anything seems out of place.
Notes to editors:
In March 2019, Which? analysed 14 popular tech product categories for obvious signs of fake reviews.
For the Which? investigation, a ‘known’ brand was one considered to be a household name, while an ‘unknown’ brand was one that the consumer champion’s tech experts had not heard of – for example, a Garmin fitness tracker versus an ITSHINY fitness tracker.
Which? showed its findings to ReviewMeta, which analyses the authenticity of online reviews.
Online customer reviews are of such a concern that the British Standards Institute (BSI) has created a voluntary standard that it wants businesses to adopt to ensure that consumers aren’t misled. This lays out how businesses should moderate and display reviews, how they should deal with fake reviews, and what information they should provide to consumers.
To find out more about expert testing from Which? and what makes a product a Best Buy, visit www.which.co.uk
Amazon says it invests significant resources to protect the integrity of reviews. It confirmed that it has clear participation guidelines for both reviewers and selling partners and it suspends, bans, and takes legal action on those that violate guidelines. Amazon told us it uses a combination of techniques including investigation teams and automated technology to spot fake reviews. It confirmed that it uses machine learning tech to analyse reviews 24/7 as well as working with social media sites to block fake reviews at the source. Amazon customers can help by reporting any requests they get to manipulate reviews to Amazon customer service.
Which? was unable to contact the ‘unknown’ brands identified in this article.