Which? goes undercover to expose fake and paid-for reviews

Shoppers are being misled by unscrupulous sellers using fake and paid-for online product reviews, according to a Which? undercover investigation.

The inquiry by the independent consumer body reveals how some sellers are actively bypassing the rules to offer free products in exchange for false and highly-rated reviews.

Which? found evidence of Facebook groups offering free or discounted products in exchange for positive reviews, with some offering an additional fee as well. Several of these groups, including Amazon Deals Group and Amazon UK Reviewers, had more than 87,000 members.

To understand the scale of the issue, a Which? investigator set up dedicated Amazon and Facebook accounts and requested to join several of these ‘rewards for reviews’ groups. They quickly found five sellers willing to proceed. For each seller they were instructed to order a specified item through Amazon, write a review and share a link to the review once it was published. Following the successful publication of the review, a refund for the cost of the item would then be paid via PayPal.

Once the items arrived, the investigator followed the instructions about how long to wait before posting a review, and then gave an honest review based on their experience of the product.

In three out of five cases, the investigator was not refunded despite posting reviews – either because the reviews were not positive enough, or because the seller could no longer be contacted.

In one example, the investigator gave the product – a smartwatch – a two-star review. The investigator was told by the seller to rewrite the review because the product was free, so it “is the default to give five-star evaluation”.

In another example, the investigator was told that a “refund will be done after a good five-star review with some photo” after receiving some wireless bluetooth headphones. But after posting a three-star review with photos they were told they would not be refunded unless they wrote a five-star review. The investigator refused, so did not get refunded for the purchase.

Which? shared its findings with Amazon and Facebook.

In response, Amazon said: ‘We do not permit reviews in exchange for compensation of any kind, including payment. Customers and sellers must follow our review guidelines and those that don’t will be subject to action including potential termination of their account.’

Facebook said: ‘Facilitating or encouraging the trade of fake user reviews is not permitted on Facebook. We urge people to use our reporting tools to flag content they suspect may violate our standards so that we can take swift action.’

Online reviews are hugely influential in consumers’ buying decisions. A ‘Which?’ survey of 2,073 members of the public showed that 97% of people use them when researching a purchase, with three in 10 (31%) being disappointed after buying a product because of excellent feedback scores.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) estimates that £23 billion a year of UK consumer spending is influenced by online customer reviews.

Which? managing director of home products and services Alex Neill commented: “Sellers are effectively ripping people off with paid-for reviews. They don’t represent an honest and impartial opinion, but instead mislead people into buying products that they might have otherwise avoided.

“We all like to do research before buying something. Watch out for unscrupulous sellers and use independent review sites such as ‘Which?’ to make sure you’re getting the products you want.”

The five items that the investigator agreed to buy and review were: wireless bluetooth headphones, wireless bluetooth earphones, car fob signal blockers, a smartwatch and a blood pressure monitor.

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