We all rely on product and retailer reviews to make an informed purchase, but as recent and prominent scandals have shown, these may be paid for or downright fake. While posting fake reviews is not illegal, bar some exceptions such as in the UK with some caselaw in various countries, digital players can fabricate or distort reviews to improve search engine rankings and business profits that will attract consumers. As the world has migrated to shopping online over 2020 with the arrival of COVID-19 and the associated restrictions continuing into 2021, fake reviews, as well as scams and general online fraud has proliferated.
A 2018 study by the European Commission on the transparency of online platforms, for example, found that in relation to consumer reviews and ratings, that:
“high prominence of user reviews leads to a twofold increase in the probability of selecting the service/product, as does the product/service receiving the highest category user review. Information that the reviewers have used/purchased the product/service also increases the probability of selecting a product, but by only 40%. That a service provider chooses to display user reviews prominently invites two possible interpretations from potential customers. First, that the service provider has no wish to hide independent quality assessments and this commitment to transparency builds trust and confidence. Second, people may assume that only those providers with good user reviews would decide to make the reviews prominent.”
Protection from unfair commercial practices exercised through fake reviews is ensured by legislation both at European Union and national level here in Ireland.
The EU Directive 2005/29/EC on unfair commercial practices defines misleading or aggressive commercial practices, which include fake reviews. It explicitly prohibits the practice of ‘falsely claiming or creating the impression that the trader is not acting for the purposes relating to his trade, business, craft or profession, or falsely representing oneself as a consumer.’ Consequently, any review presented by a trader as consumer feedback must genuinely reflect real consumers’ opinions or experiences.
The Directive also provides that the public must be informed if a newspaper article, TV programme or radio broadcast has been ‘sponsored’ or ‘paid for’ by a company as a way to advertise its products or services. This must be made clear by images, words or sound (for example, clearly stating the word ‘advertorial’ at the top of a paid-for newspaper article/promotion).
The Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland (ASAI)’s Code of Practice includes a section on misleading advertising, which also refers to fake reviews and endorsements, which states:
‘A marketing communication should not mislead, or be likely to mislead, by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration, omission or otherwise’.
‘Endorsements by fictitious or historical characters should not be presented as though they are genuine testimonials’.
BUSINESS TESTIMONIALS and REVIEW AGGREGATORS
On various websites, there are several ways in which feedback, testimonials and reviews are collected. At a very technical level, the issue of fake reviews happens almost exclusively online, and there are two main categories of consumer reviews sites where the format is as follows:
- Reviews can be posted by unregistered buyers with unverified purchases on open-system (e-commerce, directly selling) websites, where consumers can simply complete an online free-text form to post a review (itself unverified). Overall, this is any retail website with guest check-out.
- Reviews by system-registered buyers with verified purchases, on websites/platforms where only confirmed buyers can submit reviews (and all details are verifiable). These are mostly shopping platforms that have an embedded review system based on user registration and verified purchases (Amazon, for example).
- Reviews collected via social media platforms (such as Facebook) where customers can review selling businesses by leaving a testimonial or a star rating on Facebook business pages.
- Reviews left for particular businesses on any websites and shopping platforms that collect consumer feedback via and on third-party review aggregators (connected with but external to the business), where only buyers can post a review (TripAdvisor, TrustPilot, Feefo, etc.)
FALSE RATINGS AND FAKE REVIEWS
These constitute misleading practices and deceptive forms of marketing that are meant to induce an immediate purchase decision.
Fake reviews usually make:
- False claims about the characteristics of the goods or service, or creating a false impression about a product or service, even if the information given is correct.
- Unsupported, subjective claims regarding the quality or effectiveness of a product that might mislead the average consumer to make a purchase they would otherwise not have made.
Fake reviews and false ratings are more likely to occur on shopping platforms, evidenced by recent scandals involving Amazon (a 2020 investigation from the Financial Times, identified “suspicious activity” involving 9 out of Amazon’s top 10 UK reviewer accounts) and eBay (as an investigation by Which! found in 2020). Fake reviews schemes are also run through social media groups on Facebook, for example, where business advertise “rewards for reviews”, whereby positive reviews are generated through verified purchases followed by refunds to the reviewers outside the shopping platforms where the original transactions took place (an investigation by Which? uncovered this in 2019). Fake reviews factories have plagued the internet for years to date and they brought down the trust and respectability of even reputable review aggregators such as Tripadvisor, for one.
What really constitutes a fake review and how they are made varies according to the source. Thus, fake reviews can be simply factually incorrect or intentionally deceiving. Fake reviews can be traced back to four sources in the main:
- Consumers (who post fake reviews either because they are duped into believing the qualities of a product or are paid to mislead other consumers about the qualities of the product)
- Goods providers and service operators (for example, hotels or shops etc. that seek to boost their reputation or counteract negative reviews), directly (through misleading advertising) or indirectly (through e-reputation agencies or by coupling reviews to incentives like discounts, vouchers, gifts or conversely, by deleting negative reviews and manipulating reviews)
- E-reputation services that assist companies with managing their online reputation by discouraging negative reviews or operating as review factories by recruiting real individuals to post reviews in exchange for rewards
- Review aggregators that, while they verify the buyer and the purchases, they cannot verify whether the customers’ opinions are genuine or whether they have been paid to post reviews
- Influencer endorsements and business advertorials, which are a form of non-genuine disguised advertising meant to boost the reputation of the business by promoting certain products through paid advertising or marketing fees
Some fake reviews are harder to spot than others. There are a few things that can help with spotting potentially untruthful reviews, however:
- Beware of: reviewer generic names, vague terms in product descriptions, repetitive phrases, short reviews laden with superlatives.
- Stay away from review aggregators or individual websites which feature reviews for unverified purchases.
- Don’t be swayed by an overall high rating; read the individual reviews to see if they are specific enough about their experiences with the product.
- Be aware that overwhelmingly product positive reviews may be the result of a marketing drive where reviewers might be getting the products for free in exchange for a good review.
- Check multiple review sites for the same product in order to get a clear overview of how the product rates in customer satisfaction.
Whether it is a review or an influencer endorsement, consumers should always, ALWAYS, do their own research on a trader and its product or service thoroughly before buying. Don’t just take a reviewer’s or influencer’s word for it.
HOW TO OBTAIN REDRESS
If you think you’ve been misled, to the extent that it was major factor in your decision making to complete a purchase, then there are various organisations that you can seek advice from and/or report the matter to:
- European Consumer Centre Ireland for cross-border disputes (where the trader is based in another EU/EEA country.
- The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) for disputes between an Irish consumer and an Irish-based trader.
- Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland for complaints about the content of an advertisement or promotion or how a promotion has been run.
- If you think you have been a victim of a scam/fraudulent activity then this would be a criminal matter and should be reported to the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
If you are interested in finding out more, please refer to the following sources of information: