Beware Phony Reviews As We Head Into Cyber Monday

As Black Friday slides into Cyber Monday, you may want to really sift through online product reviews instead of blindly trusting those 5-star reviews.

According to review monitor Fakespot, over 1/3 of online reviews on all major websites - including Amazon, Walmart and Sephora, are fake - meaning they are generated by either bots or people paid to write them, according to the Wall Street Journal. The companies have disputed Fakespot's findings, but promise they're doing more to make their reviews more reliable.

In Amazon’s case, it said it has spent more than $400 million to protect customers from review abuse and other fraud or misconduct in the past year, and that it prevented more than 13 million attempts last year to leave inauthentic reviews on its website.

An Amazon spokeswoman said that in the past month more than 99% of the reviews read by customers on its site were authentic. She added that Fakespot can’t determine the authenticity of Amazon reviews, because it doesn’t have access to Amazon’s proprietary data. -WSJ

Online sales are expected to increase by as much as 14% in November and December - now accounting for a whopping 23% of all retail sales excluding automobiles, gasoline and restaurants according to the National Retail Foundation.

"I really rely on reviews, but now I feel like I can’t trust them," said 40-year-old financial services manager, Jessica Shanmac, who says she was recently ripped off by fake reviews on Amazon - including 5-star rated Christmas tree decorations that were total crap.

"Don’t tell me it’s an amazing product when it’s crappy," she added.

In April, a two-week investigation by The Hustle's Zachary Crockett irevealed rampant fraud within online reviews - primarily from shady Chinese sellers bribing buyers for positive feedback.

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.

This rapid influx has spawned thousands of indistinguishable goods (chargers, cables, batteries, etc.). And it has prompted sellers to game the system. -The Hustle

"The way Amazon presents reviews to you is a form of hypnosis," says Saoud Khalifah of Fakespot"They put a glowing 5-star review right in your face. They program you to trust these stars."  

"It’s a lot harder to sell on Amazon than it was 2 or 3 years ago" said ex-Amazon manager Fahim Naim earlier this year. "So a lot of sellers are trying to find shortcuts."

Los Angeles-based vendor Steve Lee says "You have to play the game to sell now," adding "And that game is cheating and breaking the law."

Fakespot uses algorithms and AI to filter reviews and identify 'problematic' ones.

They look at whether reviews are spaced evenly over time, or clustered around particular days, as well as how many are written by verified purchasers—those identified as having bought the item directly from the retailer or brand. They also analyze the language, looking for repetition of themes or words that would suggest the posts were written off a script.

One sign that the problem of fake reviews is widespread is the overwhelming number of positive ratings that most products receive. Tommy Noonan, founder of ReviewMeta, which analyzes reviews on Amazon, said his firm noticed a spike in unverified purchase reviews on Amazon’s website in the first three months of 2019, and 98% of them were five-star ratings. Less than 1% were one-star reviews. Amazon removed most of the reviews flagged by ReviewMeta. -WSJ

"The majority of online reviews are positive," says cybersecurity expert David Décary-Hétu of Flare Systems. "It’s impossible to have that many happy people."