The rise of fake Amazon reviews — and how to spot them

By David Pogue

Customer reviews were supposed to be one of the internet’s greatest breakthroughs. They let you know if a product was any good before you spent money on it. Sites like Amazon, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb built their successes on the trust created by those review systems.

But these days, that trust is getting shaky.

How bad is the problem?

Here’s the thing: The review system is essential to trust — and to Amazon’s business model. After all, if you’re an online-only store, your customers can’t touch and examine your wares. All they have to go on are reviews from other customers.

But here’s the other thing: If you’re a desperate, obscure company, those reviews are your only hope of generating sales. Highly rated products appear first in Amazon’s search results, so getting your product listed at the top means big money. Gaming the system becomes very appealing.

“Anyone with a brain can see that there are a lot of problems,” says Saoud Khalifah founder of FakeSpot.com. (FakeSpot is a site whose algorithms help you weed out fake reviews from Amazon — or Yelp, or TripAdvisor, or the Apple app store; more on this below.)

“I would estimate right now, across all categories, around 30% are fake reviews,” Khalifah says. “Of the Chinese no-name companies, I’d say 95% of them are fake reviews.”

For its part, Amazon says that figure is overblown. “Inauthentic reviews made up less than 1% of all reviews on Amazon last month,” a spokesperson told me by email.

But as Tommy Noonan, creator of another fake-review-spotting site called ReviewMeta, points out, that there are millions of reviews on Amazon. So if 1% of 200 million reviews are fake, he noted, “there are still 2 million fake reviews on Amazon.”

Besides, Noonan says, “How do they know there are 1% fake reviews? I mean, if they know a review is fake, they’re gonna delete it, right? It’s basically impossible for anybody to say what percentage are fake.”

Where fake reviews come from

Just how sneaky are those sellers? Here are some of their tactics:

  • The 100%-off coupon. In Facebook groups, the sellers offer you a juicy deal: Buy their product and leave it a five-star review. In exchange, you’ll get a coupon good for the entire purchase price, or even more. This way, your review will still say “Verified Purchase” (Amazon’s badge that indicates you genuinely bought the product from Amazon). “It’s almost impossible for Amazon to track — and they’re giving these reviews the Verified Purchase badge,” says Noonan. “It’s not some guy in Bangladesh sitting at a computer writing thousands of reviews a day, but it’s still misleading to the consumer.”
  • The bot armies. Sleazy sellers can buy blocks of fake Amazon customer accounts by the thousand. Then they use people or software bots to write fake five-star reviews for their own products. (They’re careful to make subtle changes to each review — varying the number of exclamation points, for example — so that Amazon’s algorithms won’t spot the duplicates.)
  • The bait-and-switch. Once a seller has earned a high rating for a product, he can swap in a different photo and description, and voila: Instant high ratings for a completely unrelated product. Check out the page for this flash drive, for example, where (at this writing, anyway), the various reviews refer to a paper calendar, a blanket, a tooth-pain medicine, and binoculars. This seller has switched its product on this page, in other words, multiple times.
  • The praise-your-enemies trick. Sometimes, sellers leave crude, obviously phony five-star reviews for competitors’ products. These reviews are engineered to trigger Amazon’s own algorithms, so that their competitors get suspended. (Alternatively, they click the “Helpful” button on negative reviews for rival products, so that those reviews rise to the top.)
  • Amazon, in an effort to foster growth, has been inviting more Chinese companies (and U.S. sellers selling Chinese goods) to list their wares on the company’s site. (Only about half of the items listed on Amazon are actually sold by Amazon. All the rest are shipped directly to you from “third-party sellers,” who may use Amazon packaging to make it feel more Amazon-ish.) As you can guess, that trend makes the fake-reviews problem even worse.

All right. Now you know what you’re up against. But you have some tactics at your disposal, too. Here are a few ways to tell fake reviews from good ones:

  • Check the reviewer’s profile. When you click a reviewer’s name (which appears above every review), you get to see her profile page, which is often extremely enlightening. It shows all of this person’s reviews, for all products, all clumped together. If it looks like they’re all on the same day (or couple of days), or if they’re all variations of the same comments, you should smell a rat.
  • Look at the three- and four-star reviews. One aspect of a fake review you can count on: It’ll be a five-star review. (Or, when a seller is trying to attack a competitor, a one-star review.) A two-, three-, or four-star rating doesn’t accomplish much in moving a review’s search-results position. Therefore, the in-between ratings are more likely to be authentic — and therefore worth reading.
  • Watch out for one-worders. The name of the game is the star rating; the higher the average rating, the higher the product appears in Amazon’s search results. Therefore, fake reviews are often very short and non-specific (“Great!!”), because the actual prose of the review doesn’t affect its attractiveness to Amazon’s search algorithms.
  • Watch out for compensated reviews. Until October 2016, you were allowed to post a review you’d written in exchange for free stuff, as long as you revealed that you’d gotten a gift. It quickly became clear, though, that those reviewers were far more likely to leave positive reviews (shocker!) — and in October 2016, Amazon barred the practice. Those older reviews are still hanging around, though.
  • Beware the Vine. Incredibly, Amazon itself encourages a similar sort of compensated review to this day, in the form of Amazon Vine. That’s a program that sends you free products in exchange for reviews. You have to be invited to become a Vine reviewer (based on your history of leaving well-regarded reviews), and sellers have no direct contact with you. Still, it seems rife with bias. Sellers pay Amazon for the reviews (from $2,000 to $7,500, according to Khalifah), and send the free products for Amazon to pass along to the Vine reviewers. As noted above, it’s human nature to give a higher rating to something you got for free. At least Vine reviews are clearly marked.
  • Check the wish list. “You don’t even need to look at the reviews,” says FakeSpot’s Khalifah. “Look at the wish list! Nobody ever looks at the wish list.” At the left side of a seller’s profile page, you can click one of his Wish Lists. If you see the same items over and over again, even though you’re inspecting different reviewers’ profiles, you’ve found a cheat.

Trust older reviews. The widespread gaming of Amazon reviews is a relatively recent phenomenon. “Any review before 2013, you could put a lot of trust in,” says Khalifah. (The exception, of course, is if you spot an old review that describes a completely different product. In that case, the seller has swapped in a different product.)

Obviously, that list of traits that characterize good and bad reviews entails a lot of work on your part, especially if a product has hundreds of reviews. You’d be wise, therefore, to paste the page’s link into FakeSpot or ReviewMeta. These sites check out all of the reviews for the product at once.

“There are so many angles, so many variables,” says FakeSpot’s Khalifah. “We take a look at all the reviews for the product. Then we look at the all the reviewers themselves, all their historic reviews, all their wish lists, and try to find any patterns.”

FakeSpot shows you how many of the reviews it suspects are bogus, and clearly explains its reasoning. ReviewMeta actually recalculates the Amazon star rating for you, based only on the reviews it suspects to be valid.

Each site offers a web-browser extension (plug-in), so that you don’t even have to do the copy-and-paste thing. (FakeSpot’s extension is currently $2 a month, but Khalifah says that it will be free soon.)

What’s Amazon doing?

The fake-review problem is getting worse; Amazon says that it’s up for the challenge. “We know the value of reviews for customers, and even one inauthentic review is unacceptable,” the spokesperson told me. “Customers can report suspicious reviews 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and we investigate each claim. We take forceful action against both reviewers and sellers by suppressing reviews that violate our guidelines, and [we] suspend, ban, or pursue legal action against these bad actors.”

The company bans sellers and fake-review accounts by the thousands; each time, it uses machine learning to improve and anticipate the sellers’ ever-evolving tactics. Amazon also works with Facebook to shut down those “free stuff for five-star review” groups, and has filed over a thousand lawsuits against sellers and fake reviewers.

Both Khalifah and Noonan say that they can see Amazon’s efforts at work. “My data does show that Amazon is deleting tons of reviews — literally millions of reviews,” says ReviewMeta’s Tommy Noonan.

But it’s an arms race, a cat-and-mouse game, and it’s not clear that the good guys are winning. Amazon and other review-based companies are increasingly fighting the same kinds of trust battles that are hobbling every aspect of the internet these days. It’s no longer enough to be a good judge of value and quality when you shop; now, you’re expected to be a good judge of the reviews that are supposed to guide you.

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How to Verify what is Real / How to Spot Fake News

By Christopher R Rice

Here’s 8 simple ways to verify anything or anyone and always be 100 percent accurate. Fake news, faked birth certificates and rigged elections but, is any of it real? And how can we really be sure? Let the Underground show you just how easy it is to tell reality from libtard bullshit and right wing lunacy.

In no particular order:

1.) Evidence. Can your subject produce any evidence? For instance, the Holocaust has deniers. But we’ve all seen the photographic evidence. We still have the gas chambers preserved as museums. And personally, I’ve been able to talk to and interview survivors and torturers.

As another example: UFOs, ghost, Sasquatch or Yeti. Where is the evidence? We have a suspect photo from the 70s but no physical evidence. Where are the bones of a Bigfoot or Martian? We have bones from dinosaurs that lived thousands of years ago but something photographed as late as the 70s has produced no physical evidence. Which proves beyond any reasonable doubt that Bigfoot, ghost and UFOs are all fake.

A story should lead with information about the veracity of the accusation / claim. If there is no evidence to support the accusation / claim, a story should say so. If there is evidence to disprove an accusation or claim, the piece should say that as well. The evidence should be given top billing.

2.) Can the evidence be verified? Verification can take many forms. Speaking with victims is not considered verified evidence because victims can be biased. So you must speak with the tortures / interrogators to verify victims claims. Perpetrators never come straight out and admit to their crimes so their confessions are always suspect as well, until independent confirmation is made.

3.) Independent confirmation is mandatory to verify the truth. Not only do those involved have biases but many have financial or legal incentives to lie. Independent confirmation is when two friends are having an argument and can’t agree so they ask a stranger. I suggest using FactCheck.org instead. Or simply research and find out if independent confirmation has already been made by a reliable source.

More than 40% of U.S. adults receive news on Facebook, according to a report from the Pew Research Center. Facebook has a vested interest in showing readers stories they like, even if they’re not true. As Gizmodo reported, Facebook has the tools to shut down fake news sites, but have failed to use them because they are afraid it will make them appear biased.

4.) Reliable sources. One of the first ways to know how accurate information is, is to ask yourself, where did I hear / read this? Have I ever heard or read any info from this source before and did it turn out to be accurate or false? If you’ve never had a past experience with the source, you can still ask yourself, how reliable is this source? Do they have an economic incentive to lie? Or does the source not benefit at all from the transfer of this info?

A single-source story is generally considered weak reporting. It’s easier than ever for someone to create a website and post completely made up stories.

The problem with sources is that most people don’t know the difference between a reliable source and a paid or fake source – see numbers 5 and 7. And if your readers don’t like or agree with the message your conveying you can have a million impeccable sources and they still won’t believe you.

5.) Funding is extremely important. For instance, even though the evidence that cigarettes caused health problems and even death was well known for decades prior to being published in Readers Digest in the 50s, this information remained unavailable because big tobacco was a huge advertiser that no one wanted to upset or offend.

Ronald Reagan funded ‘research’ in the 80’s to prove that marijuana had health consequences and that it was a ‘gateway’ drug. But even though the study was done by a bona fide scientist and he produced an MRI showing marijuana smoke killing brain cells, the study was done fraudulently. Oxygen was cut off to the test subjects, which is what actually killed the subjects brain cells. But the truth didn’t matter because the MRI is still shown to kids in schools all across America to this day.

Who is funding the research will usually dictate the outcome because science is a pay-to-play field with very little ethics or professionalism.

6.) When dealing with someone face-to-face read 11 Signs Someone is Lying to You See video for text messaging.

For pictures: Do a reverse image search. Google Image Search and TinEye are two tools that can be used to search the web for a particular image, a process that often exposes fake news stories through their use of recycled photographs.

7.) The last thing that I do is to count ‘red flags’. What are red flags? Anything that I couldn’t verify with numbers 1 through 6 above, would be a red flag. Some red flags are smaller or bigger than others but anytime I reach 3 red flags I won’t publish an article until there is more or less confirmation. If it’s a deal I’m making on Craigslist or a drug deal in the streets, I’ll back out when I see too many red flags. Better safe than sorry.

Any time anyone tries to tell you that everyone of a certain race or everyone of a certain religion is this or that- big red flag. Obviously all Christians are not like Dylann Roof or Adolf Hitler so it would also be wrong to say that all Muslims are like Osama Bin Laden. Or that all blacks are criminals or all Jews are rich or all Latinos lazy or that all white people will stiff you and not pay you for a hard days work. Judge everyone and everything individually by it’s character, by their actions and deeds, as individuals.

Trust can not just be given, it must be earned. And while it takes a long time to build trust it only takes one lie or one inaccuracy to destroy a persons trust in you forever.

Many legitimate news outlets will quote anonymous sources, an article that relies only on unnamed sources should raise red flags.

If you’re looking for a list of red flags, Zimdars has created a public Google doc listing many news sites that distribute fake news.

Snopes.com, which has been writing about viral claims and online rumors since the mid-1990s, maintains a list of known fake news websites, several of which have emerged in the past two years.

8.) Just like ‘red flags’ the opposite is when you have more than enough sources and confirmation saying the same thing. It all begins with the smell test. If something doesn’t smell right it probably isn’t. There is nothing wrong with trusting your gut but let that be your starting point, not the beginning and end. Using this list you can easily prove or disprove any subject. With complete accuracy. And never get fooled again.

Help support actual journalism and reporting financially. Monthly “memberships” to some nonprofit news sources can cost as little as a Starbucks latte. Alternative independent news like WikiLeaks and Wikipedia provide a very important service, they shouldn’t have to beg for donations, either we support independent media or we won’t have one.

Empowering legitimate news outlets is increasingly important as the market for false news is strengthening. Fake news writers have admitted that writing phony stories can be extremely lucrative. Their content also attracts advertisers, which may value an article’s traffic over its veracity.

News consumers themselves are the best defense against the spread of misinformation. Support a free press by donating/subscribing here

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