Aldo Agostinelli

A reportage by the Financial Times has shaken up the e-commerce giant unveiling an increasingly common phenomenon: 5 stars assigned to a product in exchange for money. And the opportunity to resell the free goods gained on eBay. An obscure system which is difficult to track: I’ll explain you how it works.

Following a reportage by the Financial Times, Amazon has cancelled 20 thousand fake reviews written upon payment of a certain amount by the goods manufacturers.  This case has drawn the public attention onto fake reviews and the possibility to actually monitor and tackle this phenomenon – not so efficiently at the moment – which has been boosted by the increase in online purchases due to the limitations imposed by the pandemincs (Amazon cancella 20.000 recensioni fake / Amazon has cancelled 20 thousand fake reviews).

The value of reviews

How many times have you relied on other buyers’ reviews for deciding whether or not to buy something online? Many, I guess. As I have already explained, reviews, including the negative ones,  have a heavy impact on brands accountability and reputation, especially if they are supported by good arguments and followed by a clear and accurate reply from the producer. But reviews must be true: a smart and honest management of reviews pays back and may be supportive of brands digital marketing strategies. On the contrary,  users develop a mistrust vis-à- vis producers and e-commerce websites following the spreading of fake news. That is why online shopping giants such as Amazon have started worrying about this trend  (eCommerce: le recensioni aiutano anche se negative/eCommerce: reviews are helpful, even the negative ones)

The Financial Times reportage

Everything started from a certain Justin Fryer, a British reviewer of goods active on Amazon. Last August  Mr Fryer  started leaving a really positive review every four hours. In just one month the really efficient reviewer spread opinions on products for a total worth of  15 thousand pounds – from smartphones to electrical scooters to fitness tools. All products were sold by semi-unknown Chinese companies and  Fryer then used to resell them on eBay, gaining almost 20 thousand pounds per month. Such mechanism, quite easy to be set up, was this: companies sent their products to  Fryer for free in exchange for positive reviews.

He would then write such reviews and would subsequently sell the free goods received via the famous e-commerce platform. When contacted by the Financial Times, Fryer denied having being paid, and he also explained that what he had sold on eBay was just unused goods which had never been opened ( which would mean, by the way,  that such goods should not have been reviewed). Nevertheless, he immediately cancelled his reviews historical records from his Amazon account. The investigation went on revealing that nine out of ten of the most active reviewers of the UK, had behaved the same way, for a total of over 20 thousand  fake reviews which were then deleted by Amazon (Amazon deletes 20,000 reviews after evidence of profits for posts).

How the “fake review business” works

Companies  get in touch with potential reviewers through social networks and messaging apps. The Financial Times has found several automatic chatbots on Telegram which had been created to make the process easier. Reviewers then choose the products they are interested in, order them and then upload their 5-star reviews in order to be completely refunded.  And sometimes, they also receive an extra bonus. We are talking about a process which is both quite safe and difficult to track, unless a thorough analysis is carried out. On the other hand, many enthusiastic reviews coming from a limited number of users should be a wake-up call. It is no coincidence that British authorities ensuring market fair competition had already started investigating last may (Amazone and the fake reviews case: the details of a secretive system).

Amazon (late) reaction

Following the scoop made by the British newspaper, Amazon claimed to have committed to check every single review before publishing it: every week over 10 million reviews are checked in the UK. Evidently, this is not enough, even though the online giant stated the fake reviews are in the average less than 1% of the total. “We want our customers to trust us knowing that the reviews they read are true and relevant”, claimed the company, adding that they are going to sue anyone who may try to breach their policy thereof. However, Bezos’ creature is not so “innocent”: according to the Financial Times they had been aware of the activity associated with Fryer’s account  since the beginning of August, thanks to a user’s tip off . And, apart from cancelling the fake reviews, they have apparently not applied any real strategy aimed at tackling this phenomenon, yet  .

Considering the consistent growth of the e-commerce business and the various channels connecting brands and fake reviewers, the fake review fraud seems difficult to stop. I guess only a joint action between authorities and the big names of online retail may really tackle the problem. What is at stake is consumers’ trust and, once it is lost, it will be difficult for digital retailers to get it back!

Have you ever doubted the truthfulness of any of Amazon’s reviews? How can you tell a fake review from a real one? Tweet @agostinellialdo

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Aldo Agostinelli