How much can you really trust online reviews?

Recently I was surprised to find that coffee machines, which had been independently reviewed as terrible, were given 4.5-star ratings in customer reviews.

At first, I thought the discrepancy could be explained away by the likelihood of purchasers not wanting to admit that they had bought a lemon, but a new study suggests something much more nefarious could be taking place – fake reviews.

Fraudulent product reviews – the practice of creating and selling fake reviews of products and services for posting to online retail sites – is influencing $152 billion in consumer spending around the world, according to a new study.

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The Fake Online Reviews report, from Tel Aviv-based cybersecurity company CHEQ, explains that fake reviews are defined as any positive, neutral, or negative review that is not an actual consumer’s honest and impartial opinion and does not reflect a genuine experience of a product, service, or business.

Some of the sites most susceptible to fake reviews include Amazon, Expedia and TripAdvisor.

According to the report, the trading of fake online reviews has become standardised with groups, commission structures, and loyalty schemes.

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Payments change hands from around $0.25 cents to $100 per review, some buyers are encouraged to leave a five-star review in exchange for a full refund or monetary compensation.

Other crackdowns have shown bulk packages of reviews selling at $US11,000 for 1000, with “review rings” further enrolling in loyalty schemes to ramp up output.

It isn’t just humans writing fake reviews either. The report found that some of the work is being increasingly done by bots, particularly on travel and ecommerce campaigns, explained CHEQ cybersecurity analyst Refael Filippov.

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“A classic fake reviews campaign would start with registering multiple users to the relevant ecommerce platform – this is increasingly done by landing through customer acquisition campaigns designed to get people to buy goods, or book hotels or holidays on a central site,” Mr Filippov said.

“Increasingly, botnets that are used to click on ads can also be the same ones that generate fake reviews, hurting these sites credibility and businesses on them.

“We find a connection between bots that have posted reviews, and we know that they’re bots because of cybersecurity analysis tests performed on clicks.”

University of Baltimore economist Professor Roberto Cavazos, who led the research, said there was too much to gain for companies that wanted to purchase fake reviews.

“Given the size of the market, the ease of entry and the immediate economic benefits, bad actors remain highly incentivised to engage in fake reviews,” Prof. Cavazos explained.

“This complex market is adversely influencing our purchases, causing significant economic detriment, creating real revenue losses for businesses, and severely diminishing trust in online purchasing.”

The report explains that consumers who buy products that deployed fake reviews are left feeling deceived and potentially unwilling to trust future sites or reviews.

How much to you trust online reviews? Have you been burnt by reviews in the past? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Ben