Millions of Amazon customers are at risk of being duped by unscrupulous sellers gaming the Amazon's Choice endorsement, new research from Which? reveals.
Our exclusive investigation shows the Amazon's Choice badge recommends potentially poor quality products that appear to have been artificially boosted by incentivised and fake reviews.
We believe Amazon's recommendation system is inherently flawed and easily gamed by unscrupulous sellers, despite evidence suggesting that many consumers trust the Amazon's Choice badge as a mark of quality.
We ask members of the public how they view Amazon's Choice, and reveal the key details of our investigation.
Shoppers use Amazon's Choice to help them make decisions. New Which? research found four in ten (44%) Amazon customers - people who have been on the website in the last six months and have spotted an Amazon's Choice logo - believe it means a product has been quality checked by Amazon, and a third (35%) believe it means it has been checked for safety.
And when people notice the logo, 45% of shoppers said they were more likely to purchase a product from Amazon with the badge than without.
Which? looked at five popular product categories on Amazon.co.uk and found dozens of Amazon's Choice-recommended products with the hallmarks of suspicious reviews.
Amazon's Choice recommends 'highly rated, well-priced products available to dispatch immediately' and it is trusted by nearly half of all Amazon shoppers.
But our investigation suggests online sellers are secretly incentivising customers to leave five star reviews - potentially boosting their rankings on the website and making them more likely to be attributed the Amazon's Choice badge.
We looked at the top 50 bestselling items on Amazon.co.uk in five popular product categories - dash cameras, action cameras, headphones/earphones, surveillance video equipment and smart watches.
While we found the Amazon's Choice recommendation used for household names such as Apple, Panasonic and Sony; we also found it commonly used to recommend unknown brands brands - those our experts had never heard of outside of Amazon's listings. This happened in nearly two thirds (63%) of cases.
The chart below shows the proportion of known and unknown brand products on the Amazon top 50 best-sellers page for five popular tech categories.
In nearly a quarter (23%) of cases, these unknown tech brands with Amazon's Choice recommendations didn't even appear to have a website. Not only surprising for an electronics website in 2020, but potentially leaves customers with limited or no product support if they have issues.
All of the suspicious or fake review activity we found in the course of this investigation was on product listings from unknown brands.
Among these 'bestselling' Amazon's Choice products we found:
One said: u201cThe camera quality is awful on every setting, as is the audio. In the package came a leafletu2026 it explains that if you leave a five star review you can get free accessories. So the chances are that most of these five star reviews are not genuine. Don't be fooled.u201d
Another said: u201cThe reason for the high review ratings is because they offer you free accessories if you leave a favourable review! So how can you trust the reviews to be sincere and genuine?... The whole thing stinks! Disappointed in Amazon.u201d
One reviewer criticised its wi-fi connection, playback and viewing capabilities. He said: u201cAfter seeing my review [someone] from Victure contacted me directly via email (ie outside of the Amazon messaging system) and asked me to change to five stars in exchange for a new free camera. I declined.u201d
Another added he was sent a card offering a new camera for a five-star review and wrote: u201cThey know their product is faulty already so they lure customers to write good reviews and rate them five stars.u201d
It wasn't just Amazon's bestselling items where we found Amazon's Choice logos used to promote products that appeared to be suspicious. During the course of the investigation, each of the following items had an Amazon's Choice logo:
A 2TB USB flash drive for just £18. Legitimate flash drives this size are rare, and cost over £1,000. Multiple users commented that the drive didn't work or was a fake.
A pair of AMYEA wireless headphones with close to 2,000 reviews, the majority of which were about completely different products, including Acne cream, a ceiling light shade, prescription goggles and even razor blades.
A security camera by Elite Security, which we reported to Amazon in November 2019 after it failed our security tests, was still listed as an Amazon's Choice product.
Amazon told us it had removed the Amazon's Choice logo from a number of products and taken action against some sellers following our investigation.
A spokesman said: “We know that customer trust is hard to earn and easy to lose, so we strive to protect customer trust in products Amazon's Choice highlights. We don't tolerate Amazon policy violations, such as review abuse, incentivised reviews, counterfeits or unsafe products. When deciding to badge a product as Amazon's Choice, we proactively incorporate a number of factors that are designed to protect customers from those policy violations. When we identify a product that may not meet our high bar for products we highlight for customers, we remove the badge.u201d
He added that Amazon used advanced technology, coupled with regular human audits, to make sure Amazon's Choice products were a high standard.
ANCWear told Which?: u201cOnly those who are satisfied with our products and are willing to leave feedback will [get] a coupon.u201d None of the other brands responded when we asked them for comment.
Which? believes that Amazon must carefully scrutinise the use of its Amazon's Choice branding to ensure that it is an effective tool for recommending products. It must also be more transparent about how such endorsements are attributed, so that consumers can make informed decisions on purchases that don't involve assumptions or guesswork.
Which? is calling on the CMA to investigate the way in which fake reviews and endorsements awarded by online platforms are potentially misleading people. to demand action. We're also interested in your stories. If you've seen evidence of fake or incentivised reviews, or if you have any other experience with endorsements on other websites then email firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Which? surveyed 2,042 GB adults between 21 and 22 January 2020; 896 had seen the Amazon's Choice logo on a visit to the website in the previous six months. Fieldwork was carried out online by YouGov and data have been weighted to be representative of the GB population (aged 18+).