Recognize Online Review Fraud
As a consumer, you have options—and that can be good news and bad news. It's great to have a variety of products and services to choose from, but it also can be tough to tell the real gems from the real duds. So whether you're looking for a new TV, a great restaurant, or a dependable hotel, how do you find the right one?
Customer reviews on websites such as Amazon, Yelp, and TripAdvisor have become popular resources for researching products and services. Forty-nine percent of online U.S. men and 42% of online U.S. women use ratings and reviews at least monthly, according to a 2010 Forrester Research survey.
While online reviews can provide authentic insight from other consumers, not all reviews are genuine. Some sneaky companies are willing to forge positive reviews—or negative reviews of competing companies—to lure consumers into buying their products or services. The practice is known as online review fraud, and it can be difficult to spot.
Paying for positive reviews
Some companies create fake reviews in-house, but many hire writers on work-for-hire websites like Fiverr or Mechanical Turk. "There's a whole market out there of people who are nothing but professional shills," says Chris Morran, senior editor for The Consumerist, Philadelphia. "They write believable reviews and are paid by companies."
Review writers aren't paid much—a dollar a review, for example—but many churn out dozens. Writers then post their phony reviews alongside legitimate ones, leaving many readers none the wiser. "It's very under the radar," says Morran.
The average person can identify review fraud only about 50% of the time.
While more websites are taking steps to crack down on fakes, Morran says that many popular review sites still rely on crowdsourcing to identify review fraud. "Sites like Amazon just have to rely on people policing the reviews," he says.
How to spot a sham review
The average person can recognize review fraud only about 50% of the time, according to a Cornell University study. However, by learning to detect specific language and other written clues that fake-review writers typically use, you can pinpoint a phony.
Use these suggestions to identify a fraudulent review:
What's being done
Review fraud can be sneaky, but there is good news: The federal government and other entities are taking steps to stop it.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Washington, D.C., now considers review fraud a form of deceptive advertising, and has brought charges against companies on those grounds. "It is on the agency's priority list," says Morran.
In August 2010, the agency charged Reverb, a public relations company based in Twain Harte, Calif., with posting fake reviews to the iTunes Store. And in March 2011, the FTC charged multimedia-training company Legacy Learning Systems, Nashville, Tenn., with paying an affiliate marketer to write fake reviews for the company's instructional DVDs. Both companies settled the charges.
Meanwhile, researchers at Cornell University have developed software that can detect review fraud about 90% of the time. The researchers initially used Chicago hotel reviews to test the system, but plan to expand to restaurant and product reviews, according to a report from CNET.
Still, the best way to steer clear of review fraud is to learn to recognize the bogus ones yourself. "Don't go by letter grades or star grades. Read the reviews," says Morran. "That four-star review might not be what it seems."
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