En español | We've heard the term “fake news” quite a bit recently, but another big problem in the age of misinformation is fake reviews — and it's one that can hit you right in the wallet.
Positive comments on your favorite shopping site perhaps nudged you to buy a home security camera you had your eye on, only to find it was an inferior product. And little did you know that employees of a rival hotel wrote the negative reviews of a Mexican vacation property, which persuaded you to pass on the resort.
Discerning whether online reviews are legitimate can be tough. Consumer Reports found that 74 percent of Americans read online reviews before making purchase decisions “at least sometimes,” according to a 2020 national survey. But 76 percent of those surveyed said they thought they had encountered fake reviews in the process.
Amazon bans sellers
Online stores and marketplaces are attempting to crack down. Three Chinese consumer electronics brands — RAVPower portable battery banks, TaoTronics earphones and VAVA dashboard cameras — were banned from selling on Amazon.com in June 2021 after their parent company, Sunvalley, was caught offering gift cards to customers who wrote positive reviews about their purchases. This is a common practice in China, says reporter Iris Deng of the South China Morning Post, but it violates Amazon's policy. Amazon banned other brands for the same reason just a few months earlier.
We rely on reviews
Almost 3 of every 4 respondents in a Consumer Reports poll said they at least “sometimes” read online reviews before making a purchasing decision. The breakdown:
- Always or almost always 32%
- Often 16%
- Sometimes 26%
- Hardly ever 9%
- Never 17%
Source: Consumer Reports
"We devote significant resources to preventing fake or incentivized reviews from appearing in our store and to ensure that reviews accurately reflect the experience that customers have had with a product,” Amazon said in a statement to AARP.
In a June 16 blog post, the company said it stopped more than 200 million fake reviews in 2020 before any customer saw them, using a combination of machine learning and human investigators.
"This is not only against Amazon's polices but also illegal [in the United States],” says CEO Mark Palfreeman of Nixplay, which sells smart digital photo frames in the United States. “There are many websites run by agencies that facilitate this connection. Once the customer writes a five-star review on Amazon, the customer then sends a screenshot or photo of the five-star review they have written on Amazon back to the agency to trigger a cash payment via PayPal."
Always be suspicious
Americans are beginning to recognize fake reviews. Always be suspicious of overenthusiastic reviews with little depth, Palfreeman says.
"Watch out for way too many reviews that seem to state a few positive words — like ‘brilliant!’ and ‘amazing!’ — but never really seem to say why the product is brilliant or amazing,” he says. Many of these gushy reviews are posted within a few hours or days of one another, which is also suspect.
Cross-reference customer reviews of the same products on different websites. If you see consistent reviews on several online stores, it may add validity to the feedback.
You should also be wary of negative reviews that consistently question the good reviews, Palfreeman says. “The negative reviews could be fake, too,” he says.
Be sure to read reviews by professionals from reputable publications. While there are exceptions, it's safer to trust critics from established newspapers and magazines with strict policies about conflicts of interest than it is to trust social media influencers, who might be compensated for a positive review of a product, service or vacation property — and not disclose it.
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Some software applications, including browser extensions, claim to automatically spot fake reviews, but “they do not work,” Palfreeman says. “The agencies coordinating the fake reviews have been able to counter these basic fake-review-spotting software apps."
Before you make any purchase, make sure the merchant has a no-hassle return policy.
Some travel sites have also taken matters into their own hands. For example, to leave a star rating or review of a property at Hotels.com, customers must have stayed there at least one night.
"We have over 19 million verified reviews and photos taken by real guests who have stayed at the hotel,” Hotels.com said in a statement to AARP. “Our site will only allow you to write a review and upload photos if you've made a booking with us and stayed at the hotel. … That's how we know our reviews are from real guests."
'Consumer Reports' aims to help
"With so many fake online reviews, scams and paid endorsements, it can be difficult for people to make informed purchase decisions,” says Leonora Wiener, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Consumer Reports. “Fifty percent of Americans who read online reviews report purchasing a product based on an online review and later finding out the performance or quality of the product didn't match the review."
To help combat fake reviews, Consumer Reports recently introduced CR Recommended, a program designed to showcase the organization's objective product recommendations at the point of purchase. Whether shoppers are online or in a store, they may see a CR Recommended certification that guarantees the product meets the organization's strict criteria for performance, reliability and other variables — including safety, if it's a vehicle.
An accompanying QR code (kind of a square barcode) can be scanned for a deeper dive. The rating will also appear on ConsumerReports.org and in Consumer Reports magazine. Only after the rating is issued can manufacturers opt to display the CR Recommended label on product packaging, online or on an in-store display.
"My ultimate recommendation is to trust your gut,” Palfreeman says. “You have likely spent years buying good products, and some bad ones, too. So you'll likely know if something doesn't sit right."
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.