Trends in Trust

Five-star fraud: Fake reviews are coming for your wallet

Tuesday, May 19, 2020
Five-star fraud Fake reviews are coming for your wallet

Reviews are an important part of the purchasing process for many consumers. Reviews let us assess the authenticity and trustworthiness of a business through collective experience. But what happens when bad actors attempt to manipulate or weaponize reviews? In our series, Trust in the Age of Scamming, Trustpilot is exploring how consumers are regularly exposed to various scams online and in the real world, how consumers can detect scams, and how to know what brands to trust.

In this article, we are looking at how some companies manipulate their image on review platforms by either fabricating reviews or paying for fake reviews to be left on their profile pages. Awareness of these practices and knowing which review platforms are fighting fake reviews will allow consumers to assess trustworthy review sources and, ultimately, avoid making purchases based on fraudulent reviews.

We are all concerned about fake reviews

We know that fake reviews are a major concern amongst consumers. According to our report The Critical Role of Reviews in Internet Trust, consumers fear that brands censorship of online reviews is impacting their freedom of speech (39% in the US and 42% in the UK) and causing them to waste money they can’t afford to (52% in the US and 45% in the UK).

Fake reviews were cited as the most undesired behaviors on the internet with more than three in five people believing they should be removed. Politically biased advertising was in fact seen as less problematic than fake reviews; such high ranking is likely because people are concerned about wasting money on fraudulently reviewed products and experiences.

The same study of online trust found that, in 2019, US consumers wasted $125 on average due to inaccurate reviews. And with the scale and sophistication of review fraud growing each year, we are likely to see that number grow.

For consumers who are concerned about review fraud impacting their purchase decisions, understanding the scope and scale of review fraud is the first step in protecting themselves.

We are all concerned about fake reviews

Fake reviews come in many forms

Neither websites with integrated review platforms, nor third-party review sites are entirely immune to fake reviews, which can range from purchased reviews to sophisticated schemes aimed at bolstering ratings and undermining negative reviews.

One such scheme was revealed when the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settled a sophisticated and systemic fake review case with Sunday Riley, a skincare and cosmetics company. The company’s CEO directed employees to leave five star reviews of Sunday Riley skincare products on Sephora.com, “dislike” any negative reviews left for certain products, and write positive reviews that contradicted real, negative reviews.

While one might feel frustrated after spending $55 on a five-star skincare product with fake reviews, however some review scams can influence much more expensive transactions with long term implications, such as financial lending products.

In February 2020, the FTC charged LendEDU with duping consumers into believing “accurate” and “unbiased” reviews of financial products, including student loans, personal loans, small business loans, and mortgages, when the reviews were actually based on a pay-to-play scheme. According to the FTC, the reviews on LendEDU were “based on payment from the companies” in cost-per-click agreements that guaranteed a minimum rank on LendEDU’s site, not on authentic consumer experience with the products.

Businesses aren’t always the deceiver in review scams and fake reviews can sometimes be weaponized by consumers, as was the case earlier in 2020 with The Honey Pot’s profile on Trustpilot. In February, US retailer Target ran an advertisement during Black History Month highlighting The Honey Pot, a feminine hygiene company, and praised the black founder, Bea Dixon, for her success in the competitive health and beauty market. Some angry consumers then overwhelmed The Honey Pot’s company profile page on Trustpilot and expressed anger at the Target advertisement. Many of these reviews were not based on a legitimate experience with the company and even included explicit and racist language, all violations of our User Guidelines. Trustpilot worked with The Honey Pot to clear out the inauthentic reviews so that their Trustpilot profile page would reflect only reviews of those who had legitimate experiences. This example demonstrates how consumers can abuse third-party review platforms and attempt to damage a company’s reputation based on inauthentic experiences or personal beliefs.

Not all review fraud instances are complex or large scale operations. Businesses can attempt to manipulate their ratings on review sites easily. With just a credit card, businesses can buy reviews for various sites, including Amazon, Google and Trustpilot. In the US, one such site offers 100 reviews for $146. Businesses in the UK can buy the same for $219. These reviews will often get caught on websites that implement fraud detection software, however some may end up on websites that are less diligent about fighting review fraud.

Detecting fake reviews and how Trustpilot is fighting back

Detecting fake reviews and how Trustpilot is fighting back

We think having an open platform is a good thing because it allows anyone who wants to review an experience with a business to do so, regardless of whether or not the company has invited them.

But being open to all means we must protect our platform from fake reviews. On Trustpilot, a review is considered to be fake if:

  1. It doesn’t represent a genuine service or buying experience
  2. It is a deliberate attempt to manipulate consumer perception or behavior

We've spent years developing and fine-tuning machine learning algorithms that detect when a review meets this criteria. This forms the foundation of our fraud detection software and Trustpilot continues to make investments and improvements in this area. But we know that sometimes, reviews will evade our software which is when we rely on our team of compliance experts to investigate all cases of misuse, reported by both businesses and consumers. (You can read more about what happens when a review is flagged here.)

Trustpilot will continue to work with consumers and businesses to make our platform even more transparent so that consumers know our stars are a reflection of trustworthy and authentic reviews.

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