Tuesday, September 30, 2014
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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:

  • Read beyond ratings. Many review sites use stars or letter grades to rate products and services. But paying attention to ratings alone can expose you to fraud. "On a popular product, you're going to see hundreds of reviews," says Morran. "The thing to do is read through them. Don't go by stars."

    Carefully reading reviews can reveal trends, says Morran. If several users have the same complaint about a product, it's usually a sign of a genuine issue. But a product that boasts a perfect rating could have earned that status based on false reviews. If you buy something based on a rating alone, your purchase could turn out to be a flop.

  • Pay attention to language. Does a review sound more like a marketing pitch than a genuine opinion? Review shills often write in an overly elaborate style to "sell" a product. "Look for language your average person wouldn't use," says Morran.

    You also should be skeptical of any review that uses generic descriptions. It's easy for shills to declare something "great," "awesome," or "the best" since it requires little background research. So if a review doesn't tell you about specific qualities of a product or service, steer clear.

    Be skeptical of a review that uses generic descriptions.

  • Look at a reviewer's history. It's not enough to read one review by one reviewer, according to Morran. "Look at the reviewer's other reviews to see what else they've written about," he says. "If they've only written about one thing, that's a big sign."

    A reviewer who only writes about one company or product category, or one who repeats the same language throughout multiple reviews, should trigger suspicion. "If someone has written four different TV reviews in the past year, something's up," says Morran. "If they're writing about a bunch of TVs, how did they test all those TVs? Even if they're writing about a variety of TVs, they're going to be using the same complimentary language all over again."

  • Don't believe extremes. Be wary of reviews that are completely positive and mention no downsides to a product or service. Real reviewers generally discuss pros and cons, so be cautious of those who don't.

    Similarly, take overly negative reviews with a grain of salt. In some cases, companies hire shills to post negative reviews about competitors. Again, pay attention to language—if the negative claims are generic, skip that review.

  • Notice the details. Other signs of a false review can be hard to catch unless you're attuned to them. For instance, a large number of reviews posted around the same time could signal a fake, unless the reviews were posted near the product's release date or the launch of a new service.

    Also be on the lookout for reviews that repeat a product or service's full name, model number, and other specific identifying information multiple times. Shills often use this tactic to improve search-engine results.

    Many websites still rely on crowdsourcing to identify review fraud.

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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