Breaking News Emails
Receive last minute alerts and special reports. News and stories that matter, delivered in the morning on weekdays.
By Joe Enoch
The Federal Trade Commission announced Tuesday an innovative lawsuit against a company that accuses it of having paid for fake reviews of Amazon. But the agency may still have a lot of work to do if it wants to end the scourge of fake reviews online.
An investigation by NBC News revealed thousands of questionable reviews on Amazon, Yelp, Facebook and Google – and showed that it was possible to buy hundreds of positive reviews in a few days for a new company that had never worked.
On Google and Facebook, the profile photos of the reviews have exposed many questionable reviews. The profiles used the likeness of actors and actresses such as Terry Crews, Megan Fox, Omari Hardwick and Abigail Breslin. These celebrities all confirmed that they had not written the reviews in question.
Jason Brown, head of the consumer advocacy website, reviewfraud.org, explained that it was common for fake reviews to use celebrity images, often by accident.
"What they're going to do, is that they're going to create their account, do a Google search in their head and when they do add it to their account, they're going to look for famous people by mistake, "said Brown.
On Yelp, the photos again revealed the questionable reviews. In the rave reviews of an entrepreneur in California, three users posted beautiful photos of what they said was the finished job. However, the photos are apparently not the work of the entrepreneur, but stock photos that can be purchased from Getty Images and Shutterstock.
On Amazon, a reviewer had posted 676 book reviews in the last six months – each one was four or five stars out of five. Many had the same generic text and a similar title: "I really liked it!"
To find out how companies can buy fake reviews, NBC News created a gardening business on Facebook and donated $ 168 to websites that promised to post positive reviews. In 24 hours, the company counted 999 "I like" and a few days later, more than 600 five-star reviews. The reports apparently came from fake Facebook accounts – profiles spread around the world. Exams even include generic job descriptions such as "really efficient and pleasant to manage" and "very polite, did a great job".
While the speed and volume with which the gardening company has garnered praise can be shocking, Brown said the problem is common and uncontrollable.
"It's really the Wild West and there's no sheriff in office," he said.
In their statements, Facebook, Google, Amazon and Yelp all said they were aware of the problem and had protocols to actively monitor and remove false comments. They also said that the public can help end the problem by reporting suspicious notices.
Brown says consumers need to be vigilant and avoid criticism with these red flags:
- Typos or English broken – many false reviews are based in foreign countries.
- A sudden influx of positive ratings – this may indicate that the activity sought by a consumer has recently paid for a positive influence.
- Positive reviews have been broadcast around the world – a typical critic will have a number of criticisms, both positive and negative, in his place of residence and perhaps a few others elsewhere. But if they only have positive reviews in different countries, it's a sign that critics have been paid to write them.