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How to Spot Fake Reviews Before You Buy

Online marketplaces and the FTC are cracking down, but a little investigating on your part goes a long way


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We’ve heard the term “fake news” quite a bit in recent years, 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 that persuaded you to pass on the resort.

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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.  

FTC takes action

On June 30, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposed a new a rule that would penalize such deceptive activity as “using fake reviews, suppressing honest negative reviews, and paying for positive reviews” with stiff penalties.

Shoppers rely on reviews

Almost 3 of every 4 respondents to 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

“Our proposed rule on fake reviews shows that we’re using all available means to attack deceptive advertising in the digital age,” said Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement. “The rule would trigger stiff civil penalties for violators and should help level the playing field for honest companies.”

The FTC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeks public comment on whether such a rule would be helpful. It also has online guidance for acceptable practices for reviews and endorsements. 

If the proposed rule is adopted, businesses would not be able to write or sell consumer reviews or testimonials from someone who does not exist. Among other measures, companies would be prohibited from using or repurposing a consumer review written for one product so that it appears to have been written for a “substantially different” product. A company’s officers, managers or other insiders would also be prohibited from writing reviews — unless the reviewer’s relationship to the company is disclosed. And businesses would be prohibited from using legal threats or other forms of intimidation to prevent or remove a negative review.

Many perpetrators have already been penalized. In a January settlement with the FTC, online retailer Fashion Nova was required to pay $4.2 million for suppressing negative reviews on its site.

Amazon bans sellers

Online stores and marketplaces are also attempting to crack down.

Amazon recently touted its “dedicated global team of expert investigators, lawyers, analysts and other specialists [that] track down fake review brokers, piece together evidence about how they operate, and take legal action against them.”

That was from an October 2022 announcement, which also noted that the company has filed 10 new lawsuits against “bad actors that operate more than 11,000 websites and social media groups that attempt to orchestrate fake reviews on Amazon and other stores in exchange for money or free products.”

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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.

Agencies that assist in the fake review process run many websites, says CEO Mark Palfreeman of Nixplay, which sells smart digital photo frames in the United States. “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.”

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Be sure to read reviews from professionals at reputable publications. While exceptions exist, trusting critics from established newspapers and magazines with strict policies about conflicts of interest is safer than trusting social media influencers, who might be compensated for a positive review of a product, service or vacation property — and not disclose it.

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, be sure the merchant has a no-hassle return policy.

Some travel sites have taken matters into their own hands. To leave a star rating or review of a property at Hotels.com, customers must have stayed at the location 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 2021 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

To help combat fake reviews, Consumer Reports 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 nonprofit’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.”

Video: How to Detect Fake Travel Reviews

Edward C. Baig contributed to this story, which was originally published Aug. 2, 2021, and was updated to add information on the Federal Trade Commission proposal to ban online fake reviews.

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