Facebook is failing to stop fake review factories that are increasingly being used to mislead consumers – despite being ordered to take urgent action by the regulator, a Which? investigation has revealed.
The consumer champion’s investigation found that – more than a month after the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) raised concerns – Facebook remains flooded with fake review groups.
Which? found dozens of groups on the social networking site in the UK that are recruiting people to write fake or incentivised reviews, with sellers offering free products in exchange for highly-rated reviews for products listed on Amazon. Which? estimates the figure could actually be in the hundreds.
During the investigation researchers joined ten of these Facebook review groups and found 3,511 new posts generated in just one day, and more than 55,000 posts over a 30-day period. The true overall figure could well be higher as Facebook caps the number of posts it displays.
In June the CMA warned Facebook and eBay to conduct an urgent review of their sites after it found “troubling evidence” of a thriving marketplace for fake online reviews. The platforms were told to remove and prevent these groups from reappearing and eBay seems to have largely eradicated listings offering five star reviews for sale.
Over a month later, the ease at which these groups were still able to be found on Facebook leaves Which? with serious concerns about the effectiveness of the site’s attempts to tackle this growing consumer problem.
On eBay, Which? found the situation has significantly improved. However, it did find one eBay listing advertising five star reviews for sale, which suggests it’s an issue that needs regular monitoring.
Which? is calling on the CMA to consider action on this issue given Facebook’s failure to remove fake review groups.
There has also been a worrying spike in membership in Facebook’s fake review groups since the CMA warning, with some seeing a particularly sharp rise, suggesting that thousands of members may simply be flocking over from the groups that are shut down.
For example, one group started in April 2017 ended up with more 10,000 members after 4,300 people joined it in July – a 75% increase, despite it existing for more than two years.
On the Facebook account Which? used, a number of similar groups appeared on the ‘suggested for you’ page. This made it unnervingly easy to find more and implies a possible weakness in the algorithm. In addition, group admins on groups Which? had joined, apparently aware of the issue, were found listing alternative groups to join in case the original is shut down.
The rise in fake reviews could increase the chance of people potentially being duped into buying poor quality or even unsafe products that have been boosted by disingenuous reviews.
Online reviews influence an estimated £23 billion of transactions a year in the UK alone, according to the CMA, and a Which? survey of the public showed that 97 per cent of people use them when researching a purchase. However, three in 10 (31%) of those who bought a product because of excellent feedback scores were disappointed by it.
Writing or commissioning fake or incentivised reviews is in breach of consumer law and can lead to criminal action for the individuals responsible.
Natalie Hitchins, Which? Head of Products and Services, said:
“Our latest findings demonstrate that Facebook has systematically failed to take action while its platform continues to be plagued with fake review groups generating thousands of posts a day. It is deeply concerning that the company continues to leave customers exposed to poor quality or unsafe products boosted by misleading and disingenuous reviews.
“Facebook must immediately take steps to not only address the groups that are reported to it, but proactively identify and shut down other groups, and put measures in place to prevent more from appearing in the future.
“The CMA must now consider enforcement action to ensure that more is being done to protect people from being misled online. Which? will be monitoring the situation closely and piling on the pressure to banish these fake review groups.”
Which? advice for spotting fake reviews:
Be wary of brands you don’t know – Scrutinise customer reviews more thoroughly than usual 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.
Watch out for multiple product variations – Look out for multiple variations of the same product within a single listing, especially if they have an obscure name. It’s unlikely that there are more than 10 variants of a pair of headphones. You can find out which variation is being reviewed underneath the date of the review.
Filter to check for unverified versus verified reviews – Reviews marked as ‘verified’ are those that Amazon can confirm were left after the item was purchased through its website. Unverified reviews are therefore 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.
For more tips for avoiding suspicious reviews, see the Which? guide on how to spot fake reviews – https://www.which.co.uk/
Notes to editors
In July 2019, Which? investigated incentivised reviews on Amazon by joining a number of groups on Facebook offering to refund purchase costs in exchange for reviews.
In Which?’s 2018 investigation into fake reviews it went undercover, and found Facebook Groups with tens of thousands of members designed to generate incentivised positive reviews for Amazon product purchases, in return for a full refund or even an additional fee.
Facebook claimed to be addressing the issue, but in a follow up investigation Which? uncovered more than 70 similar groups, some of which had more than 20,000 members each.
The US Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Chair Jan Schakowsky recently wrote a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking questions on fake online product reviews and referenced Which?’s previous research on the issue.
Since its investigation into fake reviews in April 2019, Which? has also received over 100 reports of issues with fake reviews – including buyers offered bribes of cash and gift vouchers in return for dishonestly boosting a review to five stars.
When Which? previously went undercover to investigate this issue, for each seller they were instructed to order a specified item through Amazon, write a review and share a link to the review once it was published. Following the successful publication of the review, a refund for the cost of the item would then be paid via PayPal.
In September 2018, Which? surveyed 2,073 members of the UK public to find out about their experience of online product reviews.
Which?’s fake reviews campaign
Fake reviews muddy the waters, and mean you may not be getting what you expected. Sign Which?’s petition to help stop fake reviews if you believe in a more transparent online shopping experience for consumers.
And if you’ve come across online customer reviews you think are suspicious and may be fake, or have been approached to write an incentivised positive review for a product, you can help by sharing your experience. Get in touch and tell Which? your story – email the Which? Fake Reviews team at firstname.lastname@example.org
RIGHTS OF REPLY
“We don’t allow people to use Facebook to facilitate or encourage false reviews. We have removed 9 of the 10 groups Which? reported to us and are investigating the remaining group. We continue to improve our tools to proactively prevent this kind of abuse, including investing in technology and increasing the size of our safety and security team to 30,000.” – A Facebook company spokesperson