Amazon is popular with shoppers looking for deals – 34% of people said they were most likely to shop via Amazon on Black Friday 2020, compared with 16% at John Lewis and 7% at Currys. Nearly a quarter said they were most likely to use Amazon for their Christmas shopping, too.
In fact market research firm GlobalData has forecast a 33% growth in the online market in 2020, driven by people turning online in light of store closures. But online shoppers should be wary – our latest investigation reveals unscrupulous third party sellers continuing to use underhand tactics to boost online reviews and potentially mislead.
With Black Friday on the horizon, Which? analysed products popular in previous Black Friday sales to assess the ones that people are most interested in at this time of year. We found:
- Sellers incentivising shoppers to write positive reviews, using free gifts or vouchers
- Products with a suspiciously high number of review images, including a smartwatch with 3,800 images and 2,544 written reviews
- Headphones with colour ‘variations’ which resulted in higher numbers of positive reviews
- Sellers merging reviews of multiple listings, which included iPhone adaptors with reviews for printers, PS4 games and phone cases.
Data from online shopping analysts ReviewMeta appears to confirm suspicions that there’s been a rise in suspicious reviews on Amazon UK since March’s coronavirus lockdown. Its data suggests the proportion of unnatural reviews has risen by more than 30% between March and August following the first coronavirus lockdown.
We’ll reveal the tactics some sellers use to influence reviews on Amazon, so that you can shop with confidence in the sales and beyond.
- Find out more: Black Friday insider’s guide
Incentivising positive reviews
Review incentivisation involves a seller offering a rebate, money off, a discount or a refund in exchange for writing a fake review, or modifying a review. This is often encouraged through Facebook groups, but we’ve also found evidence of sellers including ‘bribes’ either with a product, or in exchange for negative review being changed or removed.
Results from our investigation suggest this practice could actually be quite common. Among our findings were three Vankyo tablets, all labeled as Amazon’s Choice products, that had indications 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, the brand, 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.
Incentivisation of any kind, including offering free gifts or vouchers for reviews, is against Amazon’s terms and conditions – regardless of whether the review that’s left is positive or negative.
Yet some of the products we found evidence of incentivised reviews on, had been labeled with the coveted Amazon’s Choice endorsement.
How to spot incentivised reviews on Amazon
Always read the reviews of a product before buying – don’t just go by overall star ratings. Signs that a seller may have been incentivising shoppers to write reviews include mentions of vouchers, review cards, or free gifts in the reviews.
We have also seen some reviewers state they were asked to change a negative review to a positive one, or delete it entirely, in exchange for a refund or a free product – a worrying sign that means you should treat that listing with caution.
Amazon does have a legitimate review scheme called Vine Voices – if you see this label on a review, it means that the reviewer received the product for free in exchange for a review. This may be on an item that is new to the market, for example.
- Find out more: how to spot a fake review
High numbers of images
When we went undercover in Facebook review groups, we were offered free products in exchange for reviews. As part of the review, sellers suggested that we also uploaded a photo of the product. We’ve often seen requests for reviews with photos shared on similar Facebook groups, too.
Seeing a lot of images on a product listing isn’t a guarantee of suspicious review activity, but we’d suggest treating these with caution. 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?
In our latest investigation, we uncovered several products with remarkably high numbers of images.
One smartwatch we looked at had more than 6,000 ratings, with 2,544 written reviews. Alongside the reviews were thousands of photos – we counted 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.
In another example, 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, we doubt that so many would submit an image without prompting. One smartwatch we found had more than 60 times the number of reviews with images left on the Apple Watch Series 3.
- Find out more: the facts about fake reviews on Facebook
Suspicious review patterns
High numbers of positive reviews may, at first glance, make a product more attractive. But we’ve consistently uncovered concerning patterns within large numbers of reviews that mean you should look twice before clicking ‘add to cart’.
We spotted a pair of Pro-Elec headphones with 1,006 ratings and 4.8 stars. While this may not look like a huge number of reviews, the listing was only added on 14 May 2020. That’s more than five reviews each day, on average, for a brand that’s unknown outside of Amazon. Of those reviews, 92% were five stars.
We’d always recommend taking a closer look at the reviews themselves, too. For the Pro-Elec headphones, we found indications of variation misuse in the reviews. Variations are used by legitimate sellers on Amazon to create different types of the same product, perhaps to reflect a different colour. However, in these circumstances we saw the same Amazon profiles left multiple reviews for the headphones on the same day by selecting and reviewing different colour variants.
Concerningly, one review of the headphones had been updated with a claim that the reviewers account had been hacked by a third party unconnected to Pro Elec and used to leave a five star review – another of the tricks sellers use to post fake reviews on Amazon.
Review merging is a tactic sellers use to quickly increase the number of positive reviews on their listings, by merging dormant or unavailable products with new or existing product listings to transfer reviews from one to another.
In our latest investigation we found evidence of review merging on multiple mobile phone accessories, including:
- An iPhone 11 adaptor which appeared to share reviews with the popular PS4 video game The Last of Us as well as headphones
- An Amazon’s Choice headphone adaptor with 1,128 ratings, including reviews for a mobile phone case
- A headphone adaptor filled with reviews for a printer, wracking up 3,358 ratings
This is another benefit of actually reading the reviews, and not just trusting the overall rating. You’re more likely to notice if some of the reviews are not about the product itself.
More action needed to tackle 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 people 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.’
We shared our findings with Amazon, and it told us it wants customers to shop with confidence knowing that the reviews they read are authentic and relevant.
A spokesperson said:
‘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.
‘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.’
It said that if a customer has a concern about the authenticity of reviews of a product, they should use the ‘Report Abuse’ button on each review.
Which? also reached out to MOYAGOA but did not receive a response.
Teminice / Pro-Elec / Willful: Which? was unable to find contact details for any of these brands.