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CBS 58 Investigates: Exposing phony reviews online

CBS 58 Investigates: Exposing phony reviews online

In a world of online shopping, many people rely on customer reviews before deciding on a product, but some of those reviews are unreliable.

CBS 58 Investigates spoke to one woman, who asked to remain anonymous, who gets paid to write glowing reviews for products she’s never used.

“No one is going to find it if they’re looking for it,” the reviewer said. “So you kind of accidentally stumble upon it.”

This woman makes hundreds of dollars a week writing positive reviews of products and companies she never used.

“The website that I use is what’s called a content mill, and the reason they’re so popular because it’s anonymous,” she said.

This reviewer says she wrote endorsements for things like make up, clothes and dog food.

“It [the company] would give you the brand and you would actually have to write it for some of them from the prospective of a dog owner, who used the product,” she said, adding that she didn’t even own a dog at the time she wrote the review.

She says a lot of companies would reach out to freelancers when facing backlash or bad publicity. They even ask the writers to use specific key words.

“It’ll push the negative to the second, third, fourth page of Google that nobody ever goes to and it puts yours on the first,” she said.

But there are websites trying to combat these fake reviews. Saoud Khalifah created FakeSpot.com.

“We’ve seen certain categories where the average fake reviews in those categories goes up to 60, 70 percent,”Khalifah said.

Users can just paste in a link to a product, and FakeSpot determines how many of the reviews are reliable.

“We look at a couple hundred variables when we’re analyzing reviews,” Khalifah said.

Khalifah says tech accessories and cosmetics are some of the most common products with fake reviews.

CBS 58 Investigates decided to test it out. We went to an online beauty retailer and found some of the products that said they were five-star, actually checked out. But we also looked at the two bestselling skincare products. This moisturizer had about a thousand reviews and was rated a little more than four-stars, but when you put it in FakeSpot, it gets a “D” grade, with more than 50 percent of reviews deemed unreliable.  Another moisturizer has a 4.5 star rating, until you put it in FakeSpot then it gets an “F” with about 80 percent of reviews deemed unreliable.

“We see this actually becoming a profession,” Khalifah said.

Khalifah says there are even what he calls “review farms” in other countries, where people are hired full time to write reviews.

“Many users are still unacquainted with the fact that the reviews they’re reading are highly bias, that they’re untrustworthy,” Khalifah.

In fact the Better Business Bureau Serving Wisconsin says about 88 percent of consumers say they trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. That’s why the BBB verifies the reviews it receives before posting them.

“If we can’t verify the consumer wrote the review, by their email address or by the phone number at that they’ve provided, we don’t post the review,” said Lisa Schiller with the BBB.

The BBB has some tips to make sure you don’t get duped. Look for reviews that are verified, avoid anonymous reviews, watch out for scripted reviews, don’t blindly trust negative reviews because some companies pay people to trash competitors and do your own research outside of reviews.

“You want to look at vlogs, video reviews of the product, you want to look at blog posts of the product,”Khalifah said.

This reviewer says even though there are a lot of people like her out there, she will consider reviews when she shops.

“I go right to three and the four star reviews and I ignore the five star reviews because those are the ones that generally tend to be fake,” she said.

Below is a statement from an Amazon spokesperson, who says the company works hard to ensure reviews are authentic.

“Amazon invests significant resources to protect the integrity of reviews in our store because we know customers value the insights and experiences shared by fellow shoppers. Even one inauthentic review is one too many. We have clear participation guidelines for both reviewers and selling partners and we suspend, ban, and take legal action on those who violate our policies.

We use a combination of teams of investigators and automated technology to prevent and detect inauthentic reviews at scale, and to take action against the bad actors behind the abuse. We estimate more than 90% of inauthentic reviews are computer generated, and we use machine learning technology to analyze all incoming and existing reviews 24/7 and block or remove inauthentic reviews. Our team investigates suspect reviews, works with social media sites to stop inauthentic reviews at the source, pursues legal action to stop offenders from planning reviews abuse, and feeds new information into our automated systems so it continues to improve and become more effective in catching abuse.

We work hard to enrich the shopping experience for our customers [and selling partners] with authentic reviews written by real customers. Customers can help by reporting any requests they get to manipulate reviews to customer service.”
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