Amazon still has a fake reviews problem that is being fuelled in part by Facebook, our latest investigation into the murky world of dodgy marketplace sellers has found.
We went undercover to expose how Facebook groups facilitating the trade of fake reviews - with more than 200,000 members - are hiding in plain sight on the platform, despite promises of a crackdown from both Facebook and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
The CMA estimates that £23bn a year of UK consumer spending is influenced by online reviews and, in a survey of 2,000 UK adults (Sept 2021), 89% told us they use online customer reviews when researching a product or service.
But should you believe what you read? Our research has repeatedly found that not all reviews are what they seem.
We found 18 Facebook groups targeting UK shoppers, with names including Amz Reviewer Group UK, Amazon Seller and Buyer Group, and the conspicuously named FREE TEST 4 *****. Each offered free Amazon products in exchange for reviews, which is against Amazon's T&Cs.
We joined the groups with relative ease - though were sometimes met with a message warning us that the term was associated with fraudulent activity. But we simply clicked continue to carry on our search.
Group agents acted on behalf of Amazon Marketplace sellers, often based in China, India and Pakistan, posting photos of products that they said they needed reviews for, often using easily decipherable cryptic messages, such as 'Ne3d R3vi3w Full Fr33 product', presumably to avoid detection.
Some of the agents even shared spreadsheets and documents of Amazon products we could review, and asked us to select what we wanted from them, much like a catalogue or menu. Products offered varied widely, from hats and gloves to iPhone cases, fairy lights, birthday balloons and dog beds.
When they contacted us, several of the agents opened the conversation with the same message. This suggests that they worked for the same boss on a more organised scale or, potentially, that they were the same person, masquerading under different fake profiles.
The message read: 'Hi. We are offering free products for 1> UK 2> US 3> FR 4> CA 5> DE In exchange of reviews on amazon If you interested Tell me your country i'll send you pictures and details 100% refund after review with cover paypal.'
Here's how it works, according to our conversations with agents: the reviewer chooses the item, buys it with their own money and is told they will only be reimbursed once they've written a glowing five-star review on Amazon, usually including photos and a video of the product.
The reviewer is incentivised to give the item a top score, regardless of whether it's deserved, as they're told that's the only way to get their money back.
In return for the fake review, the agent then gets a commission - either, we believe, from the seller or from another agent acting on behalf of the seller in the fake review supply chain.
Neither the reviewer nor the agent gets paid if there's no five-star review. Sometimes the agent will specify the need for a five-star review upfront, other times they will wait until the item is purchased and pressure the reviewer after the fact.
To prove it, we went undercover and bought five items from different agents - a pair of bluetooth headphones, a bluetooth speaker, magnetic eyelashes and a webcam that was labelled as Amazon's Choice with 4.2 stars out of 5.
We also bought a Halloween pumpkin carving set, although we were told to cancel the order as the seller wasn't accepting any more reviews for that item.
We gave honest reviews for all of the products, and these ranged from two to three stars. As expected, none of the agents would reimburse us for the purchases, and they each tried to pressure us to change our reviews to five-star, which we declined to do.
It's not clear what percentage of these agents go on to reimburse reviewers. One of the agents told us that we would still be refunded for our two-star review and to wait patiently, but the money never came.
The £25.99 Amazon's Choice webcam we purchased had a majority of five-star ratings on Amazon, but we rated it three stars.
'Dear I need [a] five star review,' said the agent who sold it to us. 'My boss won't accept it unless it's a... five star review.'
The agent who sold us the magnetic eyelashes, which we couldn't get to work properly, said 'please give me a 5 star review'.
We refused, giving it two stars. The money was promised, but it never came. We were surprised to see that the product had a very high rating on Amazon - with an impressive 92% five-star reviews.
Days later, we received an email from a separate customer service agent for the brand offering us a refund plus a £15 gift card if we deleted our negative review from Amazon - another tactic by unscrupulous sellers aimed at artificially inflating product ratings, and yet more proof of how highly merchants value reviews.
We didn't respond, but received a second and a third email, this time claiming to be from the seller directly: 'Hello I'm the seller. Please change it to five stars or delete the review. After that, I'll give you a refund,' they said.
We had similar experiences with the other agents. The person who sold us the wireless headphones asked us to amend our review.
The product had 4.5 stars from 296 ratings - a high score for headphones we felt had relatively poor sound quality (one review called them 'absolutely terrible'). The seller said: 'Please try to understand they [don't] refund without 5 star review and also don't give me my commission.'
After buying the bluetooth speaker (which had 94% five-star reviews) we gave it an honest review of three-stars because, while the sound quality was surprisingly good, the radio didn't work.
The agent messaged us directly on Facebook asking us to delete the review. We later received an email from the aftercare team, acknowledging that the product had been ordered 'from an agent' and asking whether they could help find a solution.
Other agents, who we decided not to buy through, used increasingly aggressive tactics to try to get us to buy from their catalogue of products.One bombarded us with 17 messages after we said we weren't interested in the products they had on offer. They called us a liar and a scammer.
Others took a more conciliatory approach, sending us crying and pleading emojis to try to convince us to follow through with the purchase.
While it was easy to find the groups and connect with the fake review agents on Facebook, finding out who ultimately sold us the products we bought proved more of a challenge.
A majority of items sold on Amazon are sold by third-party marketplace sellers, a large percentage of whom are based in China.
But how do you contact them directly if something goes wrong, when they don't appear to exist outside of Amazon's platform and are, in effect, a phantom brand that appears to exist only on the marketplace?
We found that the companies had long names, made up of what appeared to be Chinese addresses and company names often squashed into one continuous line.
The bluetooth speaker was sold by a company called 'guangzhouxiaokepaimaoyiyouxiangongsi' based in Guangzhoushi, China, according to information publicly available on Amazon.
The wireless headphones were sold by a business with an equally memorable name - 'zhengzhouweizhenjiguishebeiyouxiangongsi' - based in Henansheng, the webcam was sold by 'Shenzhenshi Guoben Maoyi Youxiangongsi', and the magnetic eyelashes by the snappily titled 'shenzhenshixinghongjiashiyeyouxiangongshi'. We searched for each of these business names outside of the Amazon site, but were unable to find any publicly listed contact information.
We attempted to contact the sellers via the Amazon website but were told they were unable to share their contact details directly.
We also asked Amazon to share contact information, and the company said it was unable to, meaning our questions to the sellers went unanswered.
Which? has repeatedly exposed the ways in which dishonest sellers use fake reviews, and other underhand tactics, to artificially boost their products.Since then, there have been some efforts to close them down. Facebook told the CMA it would crack down on groups in 2020, and in April 2021 the regulator publicly acknowledged the social network had taken 'significant steps' to remove them.
In July, the Department for Business and Industrial Strategy opened a consultation on draft proposals to make it illegal to pay someone to write or host a fake review. It's not yet clear how any new rules would be implemented, or when.
But despite the issue of fake reviews apparently climbing up the political agenda, our latest research suggests groups continue to be rampant, and that Facebook is playing whac-a-mole with fake review agents who know how to game the system.
Throughout our investigation, several groups disappeared only for new ones to pop up, suggesting that members are well versed in evading any efforts to detect and shut them down.We also found the vast majority of groups had renamed themselves at least once. Some of these had been on Facebook since as far back as 2011.
Facebook told us it removed 16,000 groups linked to fake reviews in the past year, further highlighting the scale of review fraud. Separately, Amazon told us that it had flagged more than 6,000 such 'abusive groups' to Facebook.
But despite that action, our latest investigation shows that review agents are still thriving on the platform, and successfully evolving to ensure efforts to curtail them are unable to keep pace.
We shared our findings with the CMA, which welcomed the investigation and said it would raise our findings with Facebook 'to ensure that the commitments it made to [us] are being properly followed... We will not hesitate to take further action, which could include taking action through the courts where necessary.'
But Chi Onwurah, Labour MP and shadow minister for science, research & digital, told us she believed a more robust plan was urgently needed to protect consumers who were being 'betrayed' by a lack of action.
Fake reviews 'undermine' the effectiveness of digital markets so that they don't work best for consumers and more 'urgent' action was needed from Facebook, Amazon and the CMA.
'Fake reviews are a huge consumer harm, and they also undermine the concept of a working market because the ability of consumers to make informed decisions is at the heart of [that],' she said.
Our investigation, she added, indicated that Facebook and Amazon could be doing more to tackle fake review groups - although they say they have poured time and resources into shutting them down.
'I'd question the way in which Facebook and Amazon are defining success if you've [found] more than 200,000 people trading reviews,' Onwurah said.
'I don't think anyone can doubt that Facebook has the technology to [find and remove these groups.] If Which? can find them, then Facebook, Amazon and others should be able to.'
We asked Amazon to comment on our investigation and it said that it takes a proactive approach to stamping out fake reviews and had flagged 6,000 groups to Facebook.
Amazon said: 'When we detect groups on social media platforms soliciting fake reviews, we quickly report them to that site to have them taken down.' It added that it had also stopped 200m suspected fake reviews from appearing on its site in 2020 and had taken out 'dozens' of injunctions against fake review providers across Europe.
However, it said that the company 'cannot do this alone' and believes regulators need 'stronger enforcement powers' to take action against 'bad actors'.
Facebook's parent company Meta said it had 'proactively removed' a number of the groups we flagged before we approached it for comment and had since removed the others.
It said that our investigation - which uncovered fake review groups with hundreds of thousands of members - 'confirms' its measures to remove such groups are effective.
'While no enforcement is perfect, we continue to invest in new technologies and methods to protect users from this kind of content,' a spokesperson said.