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Home Archives Understanding the Rise of Fake Reviews (and How to Protect Yourself)

Understanding the Rise of Fake Reviews (and How to Protect Yourself)

by Fred Decker

There was a time when people just ran to the mall for anything they needed.  That reflex has mostly faded into the rear view, along with skinny ties, shoulder pads and Brat Pack movies, and now “the mall” is usually online.  This creates one notable issue: when you’re shopping in person you can see products (and merchants) for yourself, but when you’re shopping online you can’t.  So what takes the place of your own eyes?

Usually the answer is online reviews. Checking Amazon reviews for a product, Yelp reviews for a restaurant or Google reviews for a local business has become second nature for most people.  Unfortunately, those reviews — even verified reviews — are often faked.  So how can you tell if an online review is trustworthy? 

Gaming the System With Fake Reviews

There are multiple reasons to fake reviews.  The most obvious is that products (and companies) with higher ratings are more trusted and more likely to sell.  That’s especially important for new companies trying to gain a foothold in a competitive marketplace or shady operators setting up shop for the umpteenth time under a new name after previously being shut down. 

A second, and stealthier, approach is to use fake reviews to undermine a competitor.  This can happen in two ways: fake negative reviews that bring down a competitor’s average or visibly fake positive reviews which can then be reported to Amazon (for instance) in order to get the competitor barred from the platform or otherwise sanctioned. 

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Sometimes there’s no direct involvement by the companies involved: some people might post fake reviews just as “opinion spam” to make their voices heard, or because they have some sort of ax to grind. In one especially notable example, British writer Oobah Butler — who had previously cranked out fake TripAdvisor reviews for pay — created a completely fictitious restaurant and in six months made it the top-rated restaurant in all of London as a prank.  The bottom line is that fakes are out there, and whatever their motivation, they’re costly. 

Fake Reviews Are a Real Problem

Reviews are the modern version of word of mouth.  It used to be that if you liked a product you’d tell a few friends and relatives and that’s where it would end.  Now your review might be seen by thousands or even millions of viewers to a site, increasing its impact dramatically.  People tend to treat online reviews just like real-world word of mouth: the reputation-management firm BrightLocal found that 79 percent of respondents in its 2020 study trusted online results as much as personal recommendations from friends and family.

The online economy runs largely on trust, so when that trust is abused, it’s bad for everyone.  For you as the purchaser it means you may be lured into dealing with a shady or downright fraudulent merchant, or buying a substandard product.  For legitimate vendors, it means losing business to fly-by-night competitors.  On a larger scale, it means buyers are less likely to trust the platform, or online reviews in general. 

Offenders face minimal consequences.  Prosecution for buying fake reviews is possible under US law, but rare: the first case was tried only in 2019.  Most who game the system are banned but — at least in retail — can easily return under a different name (it’s harder, of course, for restaurants and hotels).    

Recognizing Fake Reviews

It’s hard to know what percentage of reviews are bogus — Amazon says it keeps fake reviews to less than 1 percent, for example, while review-rating services place the number much higher — but when the online economy represents trillions of dollars in spending, even a small percentage of fakery can be lucrative.  

Fake reviews are a booming side hustle in the underground economy, which helps account for their sheer volume but also represents a vulnerability.  Humans are creating those fake reviews, and therefore they make human mistakes that can be recognized. Here are a few notable examples: 

  • Storytelling or scene setting: An early Cornell study showed that legitimate reviews tend to use concrete language, while bogus ones lean more to descriptions and narration. 
  • Extreme opinions: Fake reviews tend to cluster around the very top (exuberantly positive) or very bottom (venomously negative) of the scale. 
  • Chronological clustering: Unless the reviews coincide with a specific, verifiable event — a new product launch, Black Friday — you won’t ordinarily find a welter of similar reviews in a short time frame.  If you do, that suggests an organized campaign (and therefore fakery). 
  • Shaky language and grammar: Fake reviews can show above-average levels of spelling errors, grammar problems and awkward phrasing.  That’s often because they’re being cranked out in a hurry, or are the work of overseas contractors whose first language isn’t English. 
  • Lots of personal pronouns: The same Cornell study showed that personal pronouns like “I” and “we” showed up more in fake reviews than in legitimate ones. 

None of these is conclusive on its own (for one thing, there are a lot of native English speakers whose spelling and grammar are less than perfect).  To really know whether a review is trustworthy, you’ll need to dig deeper. 

Fake Reviews: Tools and Techniques to Spot Them

One quick litmus test for fake reviews is to take a closer look at the reviewer.  Things to look for include the following 

  • Avatar/image: A reviewer with no photo or a photo that was simply scavenged online (run it through Google’s reverse image search to check) is often bogus. 
  • Generic or made-up username: Usernames that are generic or obviously, unconvincingly fabricated are often — though not always — an indication of a bogus account (there are a lot of perfectly real John Smiths, for example).  You can use Spokeo’s people search tools to check whether the name (or username, or email address, or phone number) corresponds to a real person in their claimed location. 
  • Clustered reviews: Reviewers who have posted a limited number of very similar reviews within a short time frame, or multiple reviews of products made by the same company, are suspect. 
  • “Opinion spam” reviews: If every review from the same reviewer includes a similar rant about a given company or platform, they’re probably unreliable. 
  • Unresponsive reviewers: Many platforms make it possible to message a reviewer, so you can ask questions directly about their experience.  Real reviewers will often respond; fakes typically won’t. 

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that most of us aren’t great at recognizing fake reviews even when we’re looking for them.  That’s why a number of tools have cropped up to help ordinary people sort through the fakes.  These are the best-known: 

  • Fakespot: Uses an algorithm to identify common signs of fakery and advise you accordingly. It works with eBay, Amazon, Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Sephora. 
  • ReviewMeta: Takes a different approach.  It identifies Amazon ratings it feels are dubious (whether positive or negative) and strips them out of a product’s — or company’s — overall reviews.  Then it calculates an adjusted average star rating of the remaining reviews, giving a (hopefully) more accurate view of the seller or product. 
  • The Review Index: Analyzes the reviews of a product, looking for recurring patterns that might indicate the review system is being gamed.  It works for Amazon as well as gaming platform and marketplace Steam. 

Again, these tools are not foolproof.  They’ll sometimes disagree with each other, and may result in some false positives or false negatives.  What they will do, in conjunction with your own research and common sense, is improve your odds of making a smart purchase decision. 

What About the Companies Themselves? 

As you might expect, the platforms themselves — e-commerce giants like Amazon and review-only sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor — take fakery very seriously and work hard at suppressing it.  Some sites, such as Amazon, explicitly identify reviewers who have verifiably purchased a given product.  That weeds out some fakes, but it’s not foolproof: one common form of fakery involves paying real people to buy a product and review it. 

The major players use their own counterparts to the algorithms used by the fake-spotting services.  Yelp, for example, updated its platform in 2018 with a fake-spotting algorithm (the so-called “ghost” update, because if Yelp thinks you’re a cheater your reviews will be “ghosted”).  TripAdvisor uses a similar algorithm, and tech giants Amazon and Google dedicate significant resources to finding fakes as well. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use your help too.  If you think you’ve identified faked reviews on one of the platforms, reporting it might help someone else avoid being scammed or buying a poor-quality product.  It’s a useful contribution to the online community, and not hard: a quick search for “report fake Google reviews” or “how to report fake reviews on Amazon” (or the equivalent for any other platform) will usually do the trick.