“Isn’t this illegal?” I found myself typing one Tuesday night at 1:15 AM.
I was chatting with Lien Xi, an Amazon seller from Guangzhou, China, I’d met several minutes before in a private Facebook group. She’d courted me with an offer: If I gave her phone charger a 5-star review, she would refund the purchase via PayPal and send me a $10 “commission.”
“No,” she responded, with a smiley face emoji. “You will love.”
I looked up her product on Amazon: It was one of the highest-ranked iPhone chargers, touting 3,971 5-star reviews and a trusted “Amazon’s Choice” label.
How did this happen?
This question sent me hurtling through Amazon’s massive fake-review economy — a journey that included private Facebook bazaars, thousands of fraudulent sellers from Tianjin to Tennessee, and an encounter with a morally righteous bodybuilder who is trying to deadlift a broken system.
Trust in the stars
At a time when faith in our government, media, and even the very foundations of American democracy are at an all-time low, 65% of us trust online reviews.
Some 82% of American adults check product reviews before making a purchase — but the way we evaluate these reviews and determine the trustworthiness of a product is alarmingly simplistic: Research shows that we’re more swayed by a simple star rating than what reviewers actually write.
With e-commerce, we can’t see products in person before we buy them. Our leading indicator of quality — and our guiding light of trust — are the stars.
Amazon understands this and capitalizes on it accordingly.
“The way Amazon presents reviews to you is a form of hypnosis,” says Saoud Khalifah, who runs the fake review detection site, Fakespot. “They put a glowing 5-star review right in your face. They program you to trust these stars.”
And there are a lot of stars in the Bezos galaxy: According to one e-commerce metrics firm, Amazon hosts 1.8m vendors and sellers who hawk nearly 600m items that generate ~9.6m new product reviews every month.
Amazon likes to think of its marketplace as a merchant meritocracy where the best products get the best reviews by virtue of quality and honest consumer feedback.
But the vast size of the platform, coupled with a ferocious competition among sellers to get higher product rankings, has spawned a problem: A proliferation of fake reviews.
Fake reviews have been an issue for Amazon since its inception, but the problem appears to have intensified in 2015, when Amazon.com began to court Chinese sellers.
The decision has led to a flood of new products — a 33% increase, by some accounts — sold by hundreds of thousands of new sellers. Rooted in manufacturing hubs like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, they use Amazon’s fulfillment program, FBA, to send large shipments of electronic goods directly to Amazon warehouses in the US.
Fahim Naim, an ex-Amazon manager who now runs an e-commerce consulting firm, says that many private label products were already coming directly from China; the move, he posits, was made to directly “empower [Chinese sellers] and eliminate middlemen so that pricing could be even sharper.”
But the ensuing rush to the marketplace has spawned thousands of indistinguishable goods (chargers, cables, batteries, etc.). And it has prompted sellers to game the system.
“It’s a lot harder to sell on Amazon than it was 2 or 3 years ago,” adds Naim. “A lot of sellers are trying to find shortcuts.”
Steve Lee, a Los Angeles-based vendor, is among them: “You have to play the game to sell now,” he says. “And that game is cheating and breaking the law.”
One day in 2015, a bodybuilding enthusiast named Tommy Noonan was perusing testosterone boosters on Amazon and noticed something strange.
“This product had 580 reviews and every single one was 5-stars,” he recalls. “People would write things like, ‘I haven’t tried this product…BUT,’ then leave a glowing review.”
Noonan was no newb to fake reviews: Years earlier, after paying $60 for a workout supplement that gave him the runs, he’d founded supplementreviews.com, a site that became a hub for non-biased sports nutrition ratings.
The Amazon testosterone sent him down a rabbit hole; he began to find phony-looking reviews on nearly every product he saw. So, he taught himself how to code and built a tool (based on 12 tests, explained here) that could be used to gauge the authenticity of any Amazon product’s reviews.
To date, his site, ReviewMeta, has analyzed 203 million Amazon reviews and found 11.3% (22.8m) of them to be untrustworthy. (A similar site, Fakespot, places this figure at around 30%).
Amazon has stated that “less than 1%” of its reviews are ingenuine, and has cautioned against taking these sites’ data at face value.
Noonan is the first to admit that this sample and his website are not definitive, but recent tests he’s run point to an undeniable surge in fraudulent review behavior.
A recent ReviewMeta analysis determined that in March of 2019 alone, Amazon was hit with a flurry of more than 2 million unverified reviews (that is, reviews that can’t be confirmed as purchases made through Amazon) — 99.6% of which were 5 stars.
“They’re almost all for these off-brand, cheap electronic products: Phone chargers, headphones, cables,” says Noonan. “Generic things that are super cheap to manufacture, have good margins, and get a ton of searches.”
Though the inner workings of Amazon’s product-ranking algorithm are unknown, items with 5-star ratings and lots of reviews tend to float to the top.
In a spot check run prior to the publishing of this article, I confirmed Noonan’s findings: 10 of the 22 first-page results on Amazon for “iPhone charger” were products with thousands of 5-star reviews, all unverified and posted within a few days of each other.
Under federal law, the practice of exchanging free products or payments for favorable reviews without disclosure (a practice called incentivized reviews) is illegal.
“Endorsements are required to be truthful,” Mary Engel, Associate Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Advertising Practices, told me. “If a reviewer has received something of value in exchange for their opinion, they need to clearly disclose that in the review.”
Amazon belatedly banned incentivized reviews on its platform in 2016, as part of a well-intentioned effort to maintain trust. Earlier this year, the FTC also made headlines by prosecuting a first-of-its-kind case challenging undisclosed paid product reviews.
But Amazon’s move has sparked a counter-attack: Sellers have continued to rig reviews, but do so more furtively, resulting in even less transparency for prospective shoppers.
They’ve migrated to secretive enclaves, where they entice reviewers with a free assortment of slipshod objects and a couple of bucks.
That’s where my journey began.
The fake review economy
The fake Amazon review economy is a thriving market, ripe with underground forums, “How To Game The Rankings!” tutorials, and websites with names like (now-defunct) “amazonverifiedreviews.com.”
But the favored hunting grounds for sellers on the prowl is Amazon’s fellow tech behemoth, Facebook.
In a recent two-week period, I identified more than 150 private Facebook groups where sellers openly exchange free products (and, in many cases, commissions) for 5-star reviews, sans disclosures.
A sampling of 20 groups I analyzed [which I’ve posted publicly here] collectively have more than 200,000 members. These groups seem to be in the midst of an online Gold Rush: Most are less than a year old, and in the past 30 days have attracted more than 50,000 new users.
Honesty and “no scamming” are touted as group rules — but a look under the hood reveals a potpourri of foul play.
I gained access to 4 of these groups, posing as an interested reviewer.
Within minutes, I was barraged with a flurry of private messages from vendors hawking a tour de force of tacky capitalism: Water flossers, supplements, dog grooming tools, fanny packs, screen protectors, pillows, seat belt cushions, light-up headphones, watches, body hair removers, and an encyclopedic array of cell phone cables.
Here’s how the process generally works:
- A seller posts an item to the discussion board with a message like, “FREE. refund + $5 commission for 5 STAR. PM for details.”
- An interested buyer sends the seller a private message.
- The seller directs the buyer to the product on Amazon using keywords.
- The buyer purchases the product and leaves a 5-star review.
- The seller sends the buyer a refund via PayPal, plus a commission (usually in the form of a $5-10 gift card).
“U want free?” one seller messaged me one morning. “Which one u want?” The seller, listed under the name Lee Ann, threw open his digital trenchcoat and exposed me to a vast selection of cycling clothing. “Men or women?”
“Men,” I wrote.
“Need review, refund after review,” he responded. “10 dollars commission.”
He instructed me to search for the keywords “cycling shorts men” on the Amazon mobile app, gave me the first two letters of the brand name (XG), and said it was the 80th result. On the third page, I found the shorts: 32 5-star reviews — all unverified.
“Must be 5-star review, no disclosure” he instructed. I asked if he had any tips on how to craft my prose. “More letters and put photo of you wearing the shorts.”
These sellers hope that taking a loss in the short-term will pay off once their products have a sizeable number of reviews and a favorable position in Amazon’s rankings.
“It’s part of a promotion…it’s a long-term process,” Kash Corp, a seller of hot pink women’s leggings, told me. The company offered me a $6 commission to post a pre-written review. It didn’t matter, they added, that I’m a man.
When confronted in private messages, sellers openly admitted that what they are doing is deceitful and illegal, but position it as a necessary evil.
“Hear me out,” writes a seller named Mikaela. “We are doing this [to] help our item make sales. We are competing with thousands of screen protectors out there.”
The majority of sellers’ personal profiles (though likely burner or alias accounts) place them in industrial Chinese cities, at the epicenter of Amazon’s recent listings growth. The goods they sell are fungible: At one point, I was in communication with 4 sellers all offering indistinguishable cables, down to the pattern on the nylon braiding.
But buyers seem eager to partake in these transactions.
“It’s nice to try out free things, that’s how I look at it,” said Zach Miller, a former Piggly Wiggly cashier (and frequent 5-star dispenser) from Elm, Texas.
Most reviewers stick to 3 or fewer positive reviews per week to avoid suspicion from Amazon. By exercising caution, some users have been able to make a consistent side income from the commissions.
“Make sure your reviews don’t sound overly fake and make sure you review other items too, not just from Chinese sellers,” cautioned Araceli Morales, who has left 112 5-star reviews for Amazon sellers through Facebook listings. “Never write ‘love.’”
One stay-at-home mom from Kentucky told me she makes $200-300 per month leaving positive reviews for things like sleep masks, light bulbs, and AV cables.
“Do you actually like the products?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she wrote. “I never use them.”
The charger from hell
Late one Tuesday night, I found myself backroom dealing with Lien Xi, an apparent power-seller from Guangzhou, China.
Her phone charger, she claimed, was of the “highest quality” — and it could be mine for free. I’d pay $13.99 on Amazon for the 3-pack bundle and send her a copy of the confirmation; she’d refund me, then give me another $10 after the review.
On Amazon, the product was the #3 result for “iPhone Charger”, boasting nearly 4,000 5-star reviews. It had been knighted with an “Amazon’s Choice” label and qualified for Prime shipping.
I bought it.
Two days later, a blue packet arrived in the mail. The cables were a tangled bouquet of polyethylene and plasticisers. I unsheathed one, popped it into my phone, and — snap!
The second cable fared no better: Plugged in, it sent my phone into a spastic freakout and made it hot to the touch (likely, I later found out, a voltage irregularity that can permanently damage electronic devices).
I was hesitant to see what the third cable had in store, but for the sake of science I popped it in. Miraculously, it appeared to function.
It’s sad to imagine how many shoppers spotted this $13.99 charger pack on Amazon’s first-page results and fell for the thousands of positive reviews and the algorithmically-generated endorsement from a platform that people trust more than religion.
And it’s hard to reason how such a product, peddled by a ragtag troupe of e-commerce scammers, managed to game one of the world’s premier technology companies.
Some have suggested that Amazon, a for-profit company, has an incentive to allow this behavior: The cut it takes from sellers and vendors varies, but e-commerce experts say the median is around 15% — and studies have shown that large volumes of reviews translate to more sales.
“They’re going to highlight items with lots of good reviews that push sales and get them a commission,” says Fakespot’s Khalifa. “Even if some of the reviews are fake.”
In response to our investigation, a Facebook spokesperson said that groups promoting fake Amazon reviews violate their policies and are frequently taken down. [As of publication, the 20 groups we identified were still active.]
Amazon did not respond to our request for comment. But days after The Hustle sent emails to the company, thousands of the fraudulent reviews were taken off the site.
Among them were the 3,971 5-star reviews for the charger I purchased. The product now has 11 reviews and holds a rating of 2.5 stars.
To its credit, Amazon has sued more than 1,000 third-party fake review sites to date and is quick to act when links to fraudulent products come to light. But as Noonan puts it, “Their way of handling it is reactive, not proactive.”
“Amazon is a $900B company with thousands of brilliant engineers,” he says. “I majored in construction management. It seems like they should be able to figure this one out.”
An Amazon spokesperson reached out with the following comment:
“Amazon invests significant resources to protect the integrity of reviews in our store because we know customers value the insights and experiences shared by fellow shoppers. Even one inauthentic review is one too many… Our team investigates suspect reviews, works with social media sites to stop inauthentic reviews at the source, pursues legal action to stop offenders from planning reviews abuse, and feeds new information into our automated systems so it continues to improve and become more effective in catching abuse.”
The spokesperson also added that Amazon calculates a product’s star ratings based on a machine-learned model that takes into account factors including the age of a rating, whether the ratings are from verified purchasers, and other factors that establish reviewer authenticity.
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