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Millions of fake online reviews are gumming up the joy of buying stuff

A UK watchdog is investigating online reviews, be they "This changed my LIFE!" bogosity or fake negative reviews used as blackmail.

Millions of fake online reviews are gumming up the joy of buying stuffThe UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced on Friday that it’s opened an investigation into the problem of what it says are millions of fake online reviews, be they “This changed my LIFE!” bogosity or disgruntled employees who post fake negative reviews – just two of the many flavors of fake reviews out there.

Consumers are influenced by online reviews, be they real or phony.

According to the CMA’s findings, more than half of UK adults – 54% – use online reviews to suss out purchases.

Just how many of those glowing reviews – or those one-star hatchet jobs – on Amazon, Yelp, TripAdvisor, et al., are real?

Numbers are all over the map.

A recent Harvard study, for example, estimated that 15-30% of reviews you see online are fake.

It’s hard to be precise about how many reviews are fake, since they’re done in various clandestine ways, whether it’s businesses skewering each other in competitive zeal, people trying to blackmail companies, or companies purchasing puffery from for-profit review factories.

For example, some 5-star reviews are “purchased” by sellers extending outsized rebates, like the protective case for Kindle Fire from VIP Deals that advertised the cover for under $10 plus shipping (the official list price was $59.99) – an already trifling cost that was then refunded completely after purchasers wrote a review (from a company that said that it strives “to earn 100 percent perfect ‘FIVE-STAR’ scores from you!”).

That would be called an “incentivized” review, and if you’re in the US, non-disclosure would contravene FTC rules.

Then again, there are those reviews that are pure fiction.

When Harvard did its study, it came across hundreds of people willing to make money writing fake reviews, found with a simple web search.

One example was the job website, where people can advertise tasks they’re willing to perform for $5 – including hundreds of Fiverr members who offer to review products, services, restaurants and more for $5.

A Harvard researcher got in touch with a few of them to ask for a review of an Atlanta restaurant. Within minutes, the researcher had two takers: one was someone out-of-state and another was in Bangladesh.

The CMA’s not naming names, but it says that it’s heard of plenty of other misleading practices, including negative reviews getting buried without being published or businesses paying for endorsements in blogs and other online articles without this being made clear to consumers.

Bad reviews used to blackmail or skewer a business is another problem.

The CMA says it’s found fake negative reviews written to make a company look bad to consumers, whether by disgruntled employees following through on blackmail threats or businesses trying to stick it to rivals.

The CMA also heard from a respondent who alleged that some review sites selectively order reviews to bring positive reviews to the front, thereby hiding negative reviews by pushing them out of sight at the bottom of listings – a practice that may breach the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs).

For what it’s worth, in the US, that practice seems to be called “doing business.”

Although Yelp has received numerous complaints about review-gaming – charges it’s steadfastly denied – US courts have found that Yelp has the right to arrange its reviews as it sees fit and also has the right to engage in what it called “hard bargaining” by tweaking review placement on the site.

As well, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has pulled the plug on two inquiries into how Yelp manages consumer reviews, deciding both times not to take any action against the company.

It would be interesting to know if the CMA finds Yelp’s practices just plain old hard bargaining, or if it sees such practices as illegal.

In the meantime, the watchdog has published information for businesses explaining what they need to do to help them comply with the law surrounding reviews, in addition to a comprehensive report on its findings.

The CMA is planning to take this work outside of the UK, as well.

It says that as part of its plans for assuming the presidency of the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) on 1 July 2015, it’s proposing a project on online reviews and endorsements.

When it comes to how consumers should suss out whether an online review is fake or not, there are plenty of helpful tips to be found online. Here are some:

How to spot fake reviews

  • One reviewer’s opinions consistently run counter to the majority’s.
  • Multiple reviews share many of the same phrases and typos.
  • The IP address is the same on multiple reviews for the same business.
  • The writer reviews multiple products for the same company.
  • Many reviews share identical timestamps.
  • Hotel reviews that focus on family and activities, and not on the hotel itself.
  • Deceptive writers use more verbs than real review writers.
  • Real writers used more punctuation than deceptive writers.

Of course, the more articles that talk about how to spot the fake reviews, the more potential there is for fake reviewers to read them to find out how to pass as real.

It’s an arms race!

What signs do you look for to spot a phony ad?

Please share your tips with us in the comments section below, and if it’s a really great tip, be assured that We Will Not! Send! You! Any Kind! Of Incentive! Whatsoever!!

Image of disguise courtesy of Shutterstock.


> What signs do you look for to spot a phony ad?

For some sites: “Verified owner/purchaser” I believe that to be one of the best methods to weed through phony reviews. Then just look for the obvious things.

If it looks too “commercial” or copy/paste, etc… ignore it. (as article references “This changed my life” etc…

If it is something “silly” like, “I bought “X” and it didn’t do “Y” horrible!” I ignore it.

No all poorly conceived reviews are fake, but there are also… umm.. well I can’t think of a proper way to say it without being offensive. Just that you need to have common sense when going through reviews. Check the 5-stars, Check the 1-stars. Most of those will harbor the majority of fake reviews. The 4-3 star reviews tend to be the most reliable. Got product X, does Y, doesn’t do Z or Shipping was bad, vendor was poor, etc…

Another thing to note.. is to look at a product, then locate the manufacturer page (not the seller/store, unless they’re one in the same). Sellers/stores want to move product… Not that manufactures don’t, but the manufacturer will have raw details, as well as a “brochure,” of sorts, to peddle their wares. (I mean, come on, they’re not going to say they’re making junk, but they’re bound by law and have to provide information that a seller/vendor might just omit.)

For instance, when looking at various upgrade from my PC. I use a specific site (omitting site, just because.. but it is good and doesn’t actually sell anything). Then I check the vendor sites, as well as the specific manufacturer. (Take graphics cards, for example, where you have a number of sellers, a number of sub-manufacturers, and the chipset manufacturers. I look at all 3, as well as a couple of sites dedicated to testing performance.)

I find that most 1-star reviews (fake or not) tend to fall into 4 main groups:
1) The disgruntled/”uneducated” buyer. Ignore these,
2) The true review
3) The fake review (normally very obvious)
4) The 5-star disguised as a 1-star

For 5-stars:
1) The true review
2) The fake review (again, normally very obvious)
3) The useless review (obviously useless)
4) The “funny” review. (provides no info, just making jokes)
5) The fanboi (generally tote about other products of the same manufacturer) take at face value, but don’t use for decision

The “best” reviews tend to land in the 3-4 star range, however. That meaning, they provide a Pro/Con aspect. Those are generally the most useful for making a decision. The “uneducated buyer” reviews, in this bracket, normally come forward (in the first 1-4 lines) and state that they bought the wrong product or thought it did/was for something else.

Pro/Con reviews are normally the best for weighing a decision (IMO), so long as there are multiple instances. Buying a lot of PC parts, one of the main “con” reviews tends to be “DOA”. This is just standard, when it comes to certain PC parts. If most reviews say “DOA”, with no retort from the manufacturers. I’ll generally try a broad search (using your favored search engine) to see if there is anything written about product failure. Most of the time, there is a return policy specifically for DOA components.

Why’d I mention that PC example? Because a review that is 1-star, says DOA, and nothing else, or “Failed after 2 weeks.” with nothing else… generally worth avoiding those reviews, though it is an important thing to look for when purchasing PC components.

It is also important to note, that the reviews are but a very small percentage of owners/buyers. Good reviews or poor reviews, they’re the vocal minority.

There’s a specific store (name withheld) , that I was in dealings with for 4+ months. There were two versions of an item, both with a specific term in the name. The sub-supplier(s) used this to market the lower-tier product as the higher cost version, noting HUGE %’s saved. I ended up buying from a different place, (after several failed attempts/wrong item shipped) I wrote a review of the actual product, as well as a warning about the naming “issue”. The product reviews were all over the place due to the store having messed this up/being “exploited” by sub-vendors.

You can’t base everything off of a review. They can be useful guides, but look at several sources before pulling the trigger or walking away. Also note, that some big “review” sites (ones which do item comparisons, not personal reviews) are not completely reliable. They generally focus on specific brands, which may or may not be “sponsoring” them for publicity. Not that it means the comparison/review is skewed, just that an equal or better product may not be showcased at all.

I rarely rely on restaurant reviews. Everyone has such different variance in their culinary palette. Also, there’s staff rotations, the occasional “bad day,” and sometimes restructuring. (Reviews should be culled/ flagged after a given time.. a 4+ year old review is not reliable for something in the hospitality industry) Similarly, I’m overly cautious with hotel reviews. Some reviews are just.. I don’t know what to say… Some are justifiable in a horrible review, some are just venting because they expected the Taj Mahal, for the “basic” room.

You can’t completely rely on other people to decide for you. Check multiple sources for reviews/information. Use common sense and your own experience. Reference the middle-tier reviews for a better overall picture, as they tend to weed out the majority of fakes, biased, and disgruntled reviews.


There is no way to detect fake reviews and i don’t care what anyone thinks because i write them all the time and game the system incessantly and i laugh all the time i’m doing it. I can write anything to sound any way and so can anyone i break yelps filter on a regular basis by creating fake accounts on my smartphone so no one can detect my ip address as ip addresses on phones change all the time, if any one stands to gain financial benefit from gaming reviews it will happen and it does no matter how shrewd people people think they are at detecting fake reviews by using algorithms etc, reviews are a complete joke and I would venture guess that 30 percent of reviews are real and 70 percent are fake,


I discount all reviewers that only give one or five stars. They’re either fake, or the reviewer only writes when they are mad. Even in those reviews you can find positive things that make the one star unfair.


I read a great one last week. It was for a mini fan and the reviewer had bought it to go camping… “sadly, I didn’t use it as it rained, hence 1 star” priceless.


do you think one day the same scrutiny will happen with video game reviews ‘journalism”? (with reviewers being LITERALLY in bed with developers for positive reviews)?


I recently hired a company to perform a service for me. They did a good job and I submitted a positive review to Yelp. That review soon disappeared. The business owner told me later that this happened because he would not pay a membership fee to Yelp. I don’t know the merits of the FTC’s action/lack of action against Yelp, but this was my experience.


I sincerely hope the CMA (UK) takes a hard look into review sites like Yelp where anonymous users can defame businesses without proof of service or any accountability. Yelp allows and protects this type of environment to strengthen its ability to coerce businesses into advertising on Yelp. This is exactly how the mafia operates. In the US … there is only *one* business that actually can control their own reviews on Yelp. That business: Yelp. If you look at their own yelp reviews – MORE than 50% (7,000) reviews have been dismissed. And Yelp claims to never manipulate reviews. LOL


I always think that it’s hilarious that any given product , hotel, etc can have star ratings fro 5 to 1 and everything between . i have seen reviews of products that I have bought being rated at 5 when I found it to be complete rubbish, the same applies to hotels – i believe that many of the reviews are either fake or given in the heat of the moment – good or bad and are mostly based on perception of very minor things rather than being objective.


Nice post, have taken away some methods for detecting fake reviews.

I must comment on this line.

“A recent Harvard study, for example, estimated that 15-30% of reviews you see online are fake.”

Posted 14/09/2014. Not sure, recent is the term you should be using here.


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