Which? is warning of the risk of fake reviews misleading shoppers this Black Friday as new research suggests Amazon is struggling to spot and prevent sellers from using unscrupulous tactics to manipulate their ratings.
Fake reviews are a big problem on many of the world’s biggest websites and Which? has also previously uncovered evidence of fake and suspicious review activity on eBay, Facebook and TripAdvisor.
In the UK, Amazon is a dominant force with Black Friday shoppers. Which? research found 34 per cent of consumers planned to buy something there this Black Friday, compared to 16 per cent at John Lewis and seven per cent at Currys PC World.
In its latest investigation Which? looked at the first page of Amazon listings for some of the most popular Black Friday product categories, including tablets, smartphones and wearables, as well as headphones and mobile phone accessories – where it has previously found evidence of concerning review activity.
Which? uncovered a range of obvious tactics sellers are using to manipulate review ratings. Amazon says it has clear policies that prohibit sellers from engaging in this type of activity, and has mechanisms in place to analyse reviews, but Which? is concerned that its approach is not effective enough. Which?’s experts found:
Blatant evidence of sellers incentivising shoppers to write positive reviews, using free gifts or vouchers. Despite exposing this practice in previous investigations and it being in breach of Amazon’s site policies, this appears to be a persistent issue. In a number of cases the products were also labelled with the Amazon’s Choice endorsement and had comments within reviews such as: “wouldn’t have placed this review but for the fact that I am hoping to claim the free gifts offered by doing so”.
Large numbers of positive product reviews uploaded in a suspiciously short space of time. In one example a pair of Pro-Elec headphones had 1,006 ratings and 4.8 stars despite the listing having only been added less than six months earlier. That’s more than five reviews each day, on average, for a brand that’s unknown outside of Amazon. Of those reviews, 92 per cent were five stars.
Products with a suspiciously high number of review images – Which? research has shown how unscrupulous sellers often ask for images when they request positive reviews on their products. One smartwatch by Willful, an Amazon’s Choice product, had 3,800 images posted alongside the 2,544 written reviews – easily outnumbering the reviews with images left for products by better-known brands – this is more than 60 times the number of reviews with images left on the Apple Watch Series 3.
Review merging – where sellers merge dormant or unavailable products with new or existing product listings as a way to transfer positive reviews from one to another. This included a supposed iPhone 11 adaptor which appeared to share reviews with the popular PS4 video game The Last of Us.
Products with colour ‘variations’ manipulated to create higher numbers of positive reviews – evidence of users leaving multiple reviews, on the same day, by selecting different colour variants, in an apparent effort to evade any systems Amazon uses to detect fake reviews.
An account that had been hacked and used to leave a five-star review – one review of a set of headphones had been updated with a claim that the reviewer’s account had been hacked and used to leave a five star review, a tactic that other people have previously reported to Which?.
With many high street stores forced to shut due to lockdown restrictions, it’s likely that more people than ever will turn to online shopping in the weeks ahead. Which? is concerned that some sellers are seeking to manipulate reviews to increase their prominence in Amazon search results.
Worryingly there also appears to have been a rise in the proportion of suspicious reviews on Amazon in the UK since March’s coronavirus lockdown, according to ReviewMeta data.
ReviewMeta’s data suggests that there was a more than 30 per cent rise in the proportion of unnatural reviews on Amazon between March and August following the first coronavirus lockdown. This means consumers are at risk of being misled given Which? research has found that people could be more than twice as likely to choose poor-quality products online if they have been boosted by fake reviews.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has previously estimated that £23 billion a year of consumer transactions are influenced by online reviews and many people will be looking to use them as a helpful guide to get a good deal in the sales.
However, Which? believes that firmer action is needed to address the recurring problems caused by fake reviews on online marketplaces and other platforms, so that consumers can shop online with confidence.
The CMA must seek to conclude its investigation into fake reviews with some urgency. If it finds that sites that host reviews are not doing enough to detect and prevent fake reviews and the bad actors that flood their platforms with them – then strong action must immediately be taken to prevent growing numbers of consumers from being misled.
Natalie Hitchins, Which? Head of Home Products and Services, said:
“Our investigation has uncovered popular Black Friday product categories that are littered with fake and suspicious reviews – suggesting that deals that look too good to be true often are. This leaves shoppers at risk of being misled into buying poor quality and potentially dangerous products online.
“With people more reliant on online shopping than ever before due to the coronavirus crisis, it’s vital that online platforms step up and do more to protect their users from fake reviews, otherwise the regulator must be prepared to swiftly step in with strong action.”
Which?’s advice on how to spot fake reviews this Black Friday:
If it looks too good to be true…
A healthy degree of scepticism is your best weapon against fake reviews. If a product has an unusually high number of reviews relative to others in that category, especially if these reviews are overwhelmingly positive, you’d be right to exercise caution.
Actually read the reviews
Don’t just trust the overall rating – read some reviews to look for suspicious repetition or signs of incentivisation, and sort by recent reviews to see what new buyers thought. Always check negative reviews as well, to see if there are recurring issues.
Take extra care with brands you don’t recognise
The majority of fake review activity we’ve seen has been on brands that are all but unknown outside marketplaces. If you don’t recognise the brand, check to see if it has a legitimate looking website, with clear contact details. You could even try calling or emailing the seller with a question, to see how quickly they respond.
Be wary of products with lots of pictures or videos
Sellers on Facebook review groups who incentivise positive reviews often encourage people to add photos and videos. Ask yourself, how likely is it that you’d take the time to snap multiple images, or a video, of a product that you’re reviewing honestly?
Report suspicious reviews to Amazon
Consumers concerned about the authenticity of reviews left on a product, when they are looking at websites, are encouraged to report this to the online platform so that it can investigate.
Amazon’s reporting mechanism can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/
Notes to editors
Which?’s Black Friday insider’s guide: https://www.which.co.uk/news/
Online shopping: Which?’s top 5 tips to stay safe and save money: https://www.which.co.uk/
reviews/shopping/article/ online-shopping/online- shopping-top-tips-to-stay- safe-and-save-money- aMgbs0Q4k6U4
Which? conducted this latest investigation 23 – 30 October 2020.
Growth from Knowledge (GfK) press releases on Black Friday sales in 2018 and 2019:
Further information on the dubious tactics being used by sellers
Incentivising positive reviews
Which? found three Vankyo tablets, all labeled as Amazon’s Choice products, that had evidence of incentivisation within the reviews.
For one, which had 959 ratings and an overall 4.7 star rating, an Amazon customer awarded the tablet five stars, and said they had received a free case and screen protector 24 hours after submitting a review. Another, who had rated the tablet as three stars, said they had never received the ‘review gift’ that was offered.
On a separate Vankyo tablet listing, a reviewer stated that they ‘wouldn’t have placed this review but for the fact that I am hoping to claim the free gifts offered by doing so’. Another said that the gift worth £20.00, which had been offered for customers to share their experience by ‘leaving an honest review’, had encouraged them to post their (five star) review. In total, the listing had 752 ratings and a customer score of 4.7 stars.
Vankyo told Which? that it wasn’t aware of this situation and it would take appropriate measures to ensure full compliance with the Amazon policy and even suspend sellers if necessary.
Excessive numbers of images
In its latest investigation, Which? uncovered several products with remarkably high numbers of images and suggests treating these with caution.
One smartwatch had more than 6,000 ratings, with 2,544 written reviews. Alongside the reviews were thousands of photos with at least 3,800 photos in the image gallery. This smartwatch – another Amazon’s Choice product – was first listed for sale in October 2019, meaning there were more than 10 photos posted every day, on average.
First listed for sale on Amazon in April 2020, a Teminice smartwatch had wracked up an impressive 514 images – more than 70 per month. It has 1,380 written reviews, a 4.6 star rating, and is an Amazon’s Choice product.
While it’s feasible that reviewers will post images, particularly for a product where design is important, Which? doubts that so many people would submit an image without prompting. The Apple Watch Series 3 – the top model based on customer score for products sold via the Apple Store on Amazon – has less than 60 images in the gallery, for example.
Suspicious review patterns
High numbers of positive reviews may, at first glance, make a product more attractive. But Which? has consistently uncovered concerning patterns within large numbers of reviews that mean you should look twice before clicking ‘add to cart’.
On a set of Pro-Elec headphones, Which? found evidence of variation misuse in the reviews – the same Amazon profiles left multiple reviews for the headphones, on the same day, by selecting different colour variants.
Legitimate sellers use variations to group different sizes of the same coat or different colours of the same mug under a single product ID or ASIN – Amazon Standard Identification Number, ultimately making your Amazon shopping a smoother experience.
One brand, MOYAGOA, was a repeat offender on multiple listings for mobile phone accessories which shared reviews with various different products.
Which? found phone adapters and accessories, some of which were Amazon’s Choice, that had managed to amass reviews by having merged them with a bizarre range of other products including popular PS4 video game The Last of Us, a printer and even a magnifying lamp.
Concerningly, one review of a set of headphones had been updated with a claim that the reviewers account had been hacked and used to leave a five star review – another of the tricks sellers use to post fake reviews on Amazon.
Rights of reply
An Amazon spokesperson said:
“We want Amazon customers to shop with confidence knowing that the reviews they read are authentic and relevant. We have clear policies for both reviewers and selling partners that prohibit abuse of our community features, and we suspend, ban, and take legal action against those who violate these policies.
“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 10 million 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 also proactively work with social media sites to report bad actors who are cultivating abusive reviews outside our store, and we’ve sued thousands of bad actors for attempting to abuse our reviews systems.
“We encourage customers concerned about the authenticity of reviews left on a product to use the “Report abuse” link, available on each review, so that we can investigate and take the appropriate actions. We are relentless in our efforts to protect the integrity of customer reviews, and we will continue to innovate to ensure customers can trust that every review on Amazon is authentic and relevant.”
As for the current issue, we have never met this kind of situation before. Vankyo has been compliant with every applicable policy and regulations.
What we can do to solve this current matter:
Vankyo Brand, which is one of the top online retailers, has many distributors worldwide, including the UK.
We will start the investigation process with the local cooperators immediately.
If in this particular case the problem had been made by them, we will necessarily request to take appropriate measures to ensure full compliance with the Amazon policy and even suspend our cooperation.
Which? reached out to this brand but did not receive a response.
Teminice / Pro-Elec / Willful
Which? was unable to find contact details for any of these brands.