Which? goes undercover to expose fake and paid-for reviews

Shoppers are being misled by unscrupulous sellers using fake and paid-for online product reviews, according to a Which? undercover investigation.

 

The investigation reveals how easily some sellers are actively bypassing the rules to offer free products in exchange for false and highly-rated reviews.

 

Which? found evidence of Facebook groups – with tens of thousands of members – offering free or discounted products in exchange for positive reviews, with some offering an additional fee as well. A number of these groups, including ‘Amazon Deals Group’ and ‘Amazon UK Reviewers’ had more than 87,000 members.

 

To understand the scale of the issue a Which? investigator set up dedicated Amazon and Facebook accounts and requested to join several of these ‘rewards for reviews’ groups. They quickly found five sellers willing to proceed. 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.

 

Once the items had arrived, the investigator followed the instructions about how long to wait before posting a review and then gave an honest review based on their experience of the product.

 

In three out of five cases, the investigator was not refunded despite posting reviews – either because the reviews were not positive enough, or because the seller could no longer be contacted.

In one example the investigator gave the product – a smartwatch – a two-star review. They were told by the seller to rewrite it because the product was free, so it “is the default to give five-star evaluation”.

 

In another, the investigator was told that a “refund will be done after a good five-star review with some photo” after receiving some wireless bluetooth headphones. But after posting a three-star review with photos they were told they would not be refunded unless they wrote a five-star review. The investigator refused, so did not get refunded for the purchase.

 

Which? shared its findings with Amazon and Facebook.

 

In its response Amazon said: “We do not permit reviews in exchange for compensation of any kind, including payment. Customers and sellers must follow our review guidelines and those that don’t will be subject to action including potential termination of their account.”

 

Facebook said: “Facilitating or encouraging the trade of fake user reviews is not permitted on Facebook. We urge people to use our reporting tools to flag content they suspect may violate our standards so that we can take swift action.”

 

Online reviews are hugely influential in consumers’ buying decisions. A Which? survey of 2,073 members of the public showed that 97% of people use them when researching a purchase, with three in 10 (31%) being disappointed after buying a product because of excellent feedback scores.

 

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) estimates that £23 billion a year of UK consumer spending is influenced by online customer reviews.

 

Alex Neill, Which? Managing Director of Home Products and Services, said:

“Sellers are effectively ripping people off with paid-for reviews. They don’t represent an honest and impartial opinion, but instead mislead people into buying products that they might have otherwise avoided.


“We all like to do research before buying something. Watch out for unscrupulous sellers and use independent review sites, such as Which?, to make sure you’re getting the products you want.”

 

For additional Which? advice on reviews, visit: http://try.which.co.uk/factsnotfakes

 

The five items that the investigator agreed to buy and review:

 

  • Wireless Bluetooth headphones: Was told that a “refund will be done after a good five-star review with some photo” and instructed to wait for four or five days after receiving the headphones to write a review. The investigator posted a three-star review with photos but was told they would not be refunded unless they wrote a five-star review. They refused, so did not get refunded for the purchase.

 

  • Car fob signal blockers: In exchange for a review the investigator was offered £5 plus a refund of the cost of the item and any PayPal fees. They tested the item and despite being fairly poor quality it worked as advertised, so they awarded four stars. The seller refunded them and paid the additional £5 fee.

 

  • Smartwatch: The seller asked the investigator to browse other products and compare them before buying their smartwatch. They were asked to review it five to seven days after receiving the product, preferably including pictures and videos in the review. When they posted a two-star review the seller told them because the product was free it “is the default to give five-star evaluation” and asked them to give a better review, which they declined to do. They then offered a refund provided the review was deleted. As our investigator declined to delete the review they were not refunded.

 

  • Wireless Bluetooth earphones: Was asked for a review as soon as the product was received. By the time the investigator posted a three-star review the seller’s Facebook account had been removed because the ‘account needed verification’. The seller refunded the cost of the earphones via Paypal as agreed.

 

  • Blood pressure monitor: The investigator ordered the item and was given no instructions on the review. They posted a four-star review but when they contacted the company with the link to the review they heard nothing back. They did not receive a refund.

 

Item

Amazon rating

Status

Bluetooth earphones

4.3 out of 5 stars

Refunded

Bluetooth headphones

4.7 out of 5 stars

Not refunded

Blood pressure monitor

4.8 out of 5 stars

Not refunded

Car fob signal blocker

4.5 out of 5 stars

Refunded

Smartwatch

3.8 out of 5 stars

Not refunded

 

How to spot a fake review


To avoid falling for a fake review and making a purchase you’ll regret, use our top tips below:

 

  • Don’t rely on ratings – delve deeper and read the reviews. Do they sound natural? Are the too long or short? Are they repetitive?

  • Check the dates – look at when the reviews were posted. If many of them were posted in a short time period, it might mean there has been a push for reviews on Facebook groups or other platforms.

  • Impartial reviews – click on some reviewers and check their history. Do they give everything five stars? What else have they bought? If they’ve bought multiple of the same type of product in the space of a couple of months, they might be a member of a review group.

  • Difference of opinion – if people are praising an aspect or feature of the product that others are highly critical of, it might be suspicious.

  • Pattern of ratings – are the ratings at different ends of the scale with very little in between? It’s rare that people are completely polarised about a product.

 

Notes to editors

 

  • In September 2018, Which? investigated paid-for reviews on Amazon by joining a number of groups on social media offering to refund purchase costs in exchange for reviews.

  • In September 2018, Which? surveyed 2,073 members of the UK public to find out about their experience of online product reviews.

 

Which? testing

 

  • Which? buys the products it tests and sends them to labs to undergo rigorous testing. The test programmes combine technical testing and at-home testing to give you a real flavour of how a product performs. For example, when Which? tests TVs it tests power consumption and picture quality as well as how user-friendly the remote is.

 

  • Which? scientists and statisticians analyse the results from lab testing to come up with a final Which? score. Because it tests so many products its results allow you to compare between products in the same category.

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