What’s being done to tackle fake reviews?

Fake online reviews are a scourge of the internet, but retailers are staging a patchy fightback against them

Monday, 3 July, 2023

One of the internet’s most appealing aspects is the equality it gives each user in terms of expressing opinions.

A classic example is online reviews, where customers share their experiences of products and services, venue visits and brand interactions.

Unfortunately, like all aspects of the online world, those reviews may not be entirely authentic.

Fake online reviews have proliferated in recent years, as black hat marketing agencies, spammers and criminals attempt to influence our buying decisions.

After all, it’s hard not to be impressed by a five-star rating – until you discover it might be an elaborate con trick…

Scam a lot

The definition of fake online reviews encompasses anything which doesn’t accurately reflect the author’s genuine experience.

In many cases, it doesn’t reflect anything at all.

Around the world, fake review ‘brokers’ are churning out false reviews of consumer electronics, small businesses, tourist venues and online retailers in vast quantities.

They’re paid by manufacturers or marketing agencies to give products glowing five-star reviews, or to downgrade rival offerings by submitting fraudulent one-star ratings.

(While online portals use a variety of grading methods including points and percentages, we’re using the star-rating system as our default terminology).

Algorithm and blues

The UK Government recently published a report suggesting ten per cent of all product reviews on ecommerce sites may be fake.

The Competition and Markets Authority will receive greater powers to clamp down on fake reviews later this year, though overseas review farms will largely remain beyond its reach.

The explosion in content-generating chatbots like ChatGPT is exacerbating matters, making it increasingly hard to tell whether a review was written by a person or an algorithm.

Human-generated content tends to be constructed using pre-scripted templates, usually implying a product or service is either the very best or the very worst in its market.

These reviews will often shoehorn in the product or company name, or use unnatural phraseology like “buy this product” or “it’s perfect in every way”.

Online retailers use moderators and AI tools to weed out fake reviews, but they’re often under-resourced against the torrents of fraudulent content being posted daily.

More conscientious retailers will insist reviews relate to an order number or user account, promoting these reviews as ‘official’ or ‘verified’.

Some companies employ third-party tools like Fakespot to determine whether new reviews are genuine, giving consumers the chance to flag suspicious content.

Sadly, many websites lack the resources needed to investigate properly, while a few deliberately overlook false positives – better ratings encourage more sales.

What can I do to avoid fake online reviews?

Our first recommendation is to approach all reviews on American ecommerce giants such as eBay with healthy scepticism.

Amazon has become synonymous with false reviews, despite blocking over 200 million suspected fakes in 2020 alone and repeatedly taking action against Facebook review farms.

There’s little evidence of British retailers being targeted, so ratings on websites like Argos, John Lewis, Tesco and HMV ought to be trustworthy.

Be wary of social media sites, where fraudulent reviews flourish amid unverified identities.

Facebook’s limited moderators are routinely overwhelmed by a cottage industry of groups constantly churning out vast quantities of false commentary.

Google and Bing insist on verification before publishing a review, yet both continue to fuel this unwanted industry.

A quick Google search while researching this article returned first-page results for overseas companies promising to supply “top product reviews” and “high seller ratings” on eBay.

Fake reviews tend to be short and poorly written by people with a limited grasp of English, often attributed to blank profiles with no review history, and uploaded in batches.

Always be cautious about an unfamiliar product or service sporting a high overall rating – obscure Chinese consumer goods are notorious for having exceptionally high average scores.

Scammers hardly ever award two or four stars, so place greater value on more nuanced reviews which go into some detail and try to offer balance.

Finally, look up the product or service on other websites. If there are differences in its ratings, that’s suspicious. If it doesn’t appear elsewhere, that in itself raises questions…

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!