The FT found evidence that users benefited from posting thousands of five-star ratings.
Among those who have had their reviews removed was Justin Fryer, the number one reviewer on Amazon.co.uk, who in August alone reviewed £ 15,000 of products, from smartphones to electric scooters to gym equipment, giving five star approval on average once every four hours.
The overwhelming majority of these products came from little-known Chinese brands, which often offer to send products to reviewers for free in exchange for positive posts. Mr Fryer appears to have sold numerous products on eBay by then, earning almost £ 20,000 since June.
Contacted by the FT, Mr Fryer denied posting any paid reviews – before removing his review history from his Amazon profile page. Mr Fryer said eBay listings, which described products as “unused” and “unopened,” were duplicates.
At least two other top 10 Amazon UK reviews deleted their stories after Mr Fryer. Another prominent critic, outside of the top 10, deleted his name and comments, and changed his profile picture to display the words “please go”.
The FT’s analysis suggested that nine of Amazon’s top 10 current rating providers in the UK were engaging in suspicious behavior, with a large number of five-star reviews of exclusively Chinese products from unknown brands and manufacturers. Many of the same articles have been seen by the FT in groups and forums offering free products or money in exchange for reviews.
Although some reviews deleted their history, the reviews themselves remained online until Amazon acted on Friday. After the FT released details of its investigation, the company removed all reviews written on the platform by seven of the highlighted users.
The Competition and Markets Authority, the UK’s competition watchdog, in May launched its own investigation into online stores into ‘suspicious’ and manipulated reviews, which it says influence £ 23 billion in UK online shopping spending each year.
“We will not hesitate to take further action if we find evidence that stores are not doing what the law requires,” said a CMA spokesperson.
Amazon’s long-standing problem with bogus or manipulated reviews appears to have worsened since the coronavirus pandemic increased the number of people shopping on its site. One estimate, from the online review analysis group Fakespot, suggested the problem peaked in May, when 58% of products on Amazon.co.uk were accompanied by seemingly bogus reviews.
“The scale of this fraud is incredible,” said Saoud Khalifah, managing director of Fakespot. “And Amazon UK has a much higher percentage of fake reviews than other platforms.”
Amazon said it takes this fraud seriously and uses AI to spot bad actors, as well as to monitor user reports. He said he would investigate the FT’s findings.
“We want Amazon customers to shop with confidence knowing that the reviews they are reading are genuine and relevant,” the company said, adding that it suspends, bans and prosecutes people who violate its policies.
Video: Amazon and the problem of fake reviews
But Amazon had known about activity on Mr. Fryer’s account since at least early August, when a site user emailed CEO Jeff Bezos directly after his complaints were ignored.
“Jeff Bezos got your email,” an Amazon employee then replied, pledging to investigate Mr. Fryer and the other high profile accounts. A number of highlighted reviews were subsequently removed, but no broader action appears to have been taken.
Since February, Mr Fryer’s reviews of China-based brands have included three kiosks, more than a dozen vacuum cleaners and 10 laptops – plus everything from dollhouses to selfie lamps to a machine. to “eliminate fat”.
His contributions typically contained a video of the product taken out of its packaging but delicately handled, with comments primarily on the exterior features and quality of the box it came in. Many of the same products were then listed as “unopened” and “unused” on an eBay account registered under Mr. Fryer’s name and address.
On August 13, for example, Mr Fryer sold an electric scooter for £ 485.99, seven days before posting a review for the same product on Amazon, describing it as’ hands down my favorite toy ‘which he loved’ so much we bought a second one for my fiancee ”.
Contacted this week, Mr Fryer said the items in his eBay listings were duplicates and the accusation that he was receiving free products in exchange for positive reviews was “false.” He said he paid for the “vast majority” of goods, but could not say how much he spent “head-on”.
“I have a relationship with and I know some of the vendors,” he said. “My partner’s Chinese and I know a lot of companies there. . . and I just reviewed.
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Unlike bloggers and influencers, who can accept and promote free products with proper disclosure, Amazon’s community guidelines explicitly prohibit “creating, modifying, or posting content in exchange for compensation of any kind. whether (including free or discounted products) or on behalf of any other person ”.
The exception is the company’s “grapevine” review program, an invitation-only program where top reviewers receive free products that are not packaged with a positive review.
Amazon market watchers say the site’s algorithms are a big incentive to pay for positive reviews, even if it means handing out expensive products.
In addition to price and delivery time, reviews are a crucial factor in pushing products up Amazon’s rankings and helping to obtain algorithmically calculated recommendations, such as the influential “Amazon’s Choice” badge.
“You are more than twice as likely to choose a lower quality product online versus the best product online if there are fake reviews on those lower quality products,” said Neena Bhati, Campaigns Manager at Which? consumer group. The organization has campaigned for tighter controls on online reviews.
How it works
Companies reach volunteer reviewers through groups on social media and messaging apps.
On Telegram, the FT discovered a number of automated chatbots that had been created to streamline the process. One creator of such a chatbot, who said he lived in Germany, said his robot alone has dealt with more than 16,000 five-star reviews in the past year.
Interested reviewers choose the free product of their choice from a large selection, order it, and then several days later upload proof of their five-star review in order to get a full refund – and sometimes an additional commission – usually through PayPal.
The process is billed as risk-free, as customers can still return a product to Amazon for a refund if the business seeking reviews goes missing, as they sometimes do.
Doing it this way means Amazon lists the review as a “verified purchase,” a measure implemented to reduce fake reviews by verifying that a person has actually purchased the product.