Consumer website reviews should give you the truth about goods and services – unless they’ve been written to order
How much do you trust a review on an independent website that gives a positive account of a company’s product or services? Websites such as Trustpilot claim to have millions of “authentic reviews from actual customers” to help shoppers buy online with confidence. But a Guardian Money investigation has uncovered fake reviewing on an almost industrial scale, with companies paying offshore contractors to post numerous glowing accounts of their activities, yet maintaining they are from unbiased consumers.
Many of the fake reviews uncovered by Money were written by computer science specialists in countries such as Bangladesh, India and Indonesia, who, for a relatively low fee, will write and send false reviews using scores of aliases and fake addresses. Many offer their services to western companies on Freelancer.com, which promotes itself as an international website on which you can “outsource anything you can think of”. Companies simply post their requirements and wait for freelancers to start bidding for the work.
Guardian Money tracked down fake reviews promoting WAE+ (formerly known as We Are Electricals), which last year was the most complained about company to our consumer champions’ Bachelor&Brignall consumer champions column. We can also reveal covert review work carried out for a financial services company, AnnuitySupermarket.Com.
Our trail led to “Zahed Kamal”, who described himself as a 25-year-old studying computer science and engineering at university in Chittagong, Bangladesh. He told us, in conversations on Facebook and email, how he had been contracted by western companies – including British personal finance and retail firms – to covertly post hundreds of reviews on independent consumer review websites such as Trustpilot and Review Centre. He currently has 11 jobs posting reviews, which, he says, will earn him £1,130 – including work for a hotel that wants positive reviews on “popular travel sites”. Indeed, he is so busy that he sub-contracts some of the work to others in India and Bangladesh.
Across Freelancer.com there are scores of individuals who promise to write fake reviews, and extensive evidence of work commissioned and carried out. Crucially, the writer needs to be able to create a unique name, email and internet provider address for each review, and make it look like it is posted in the UK, to fool controls on review sites. It’s one reason why fake reviewing is a popular earner for computer science undergraduates.
Guardian Money began looking into the quality of consumer reviews after receiving complaints in late 2011 from readers about We Are Electricals, a Birmingham-based company that promised some of the lowest online prices for cameras, flat-screen televisions and computers.
After paying for the goods, readers complained they were told that the items were out of stock, and then had trouble obtaining refunds. The problems re-emerged late last year, when we reported similar concerns about WAE+, based at the same address in Birmingham. In its defence, the company told Guardian Money: “There are many positive reviews on the internet for WAE+. We are here for the long haul and aim to be a very successful online retailer.”
When we researched internet reviews of We Are Electricals and WAE+, a puzzling pattern began to emerge. The reviews either gave the company as low a score as possible – typically headlined “Avoid!” or “Nightmare” – or were glowing, with headers such as “Great price, fast service!” and “Couldn’t ask for more!”
It’s an unusual distribution of results, and we were not the only ones to notice. In March 2012, an internet culture blogger called Danger Nazi Zombies Ahead (DNZA), who had read Guardian Money’s 2011 stories, and once had a job interview with We Are Electricals, analysed WAE+ reviews. He found usernames that had posted glowing reviews were also used to post positive reviews of a small set of unrelated companies, based in different countries. It suggested someone was reusing fake accounts to do work for many companies.
DNZA found that “most people who thought WAE+, a company based in Birmingham UK with prices in pounds sterling, has good customer service, also bought from an American clothes shop with prices in dollars. This seems very unlikely. Clearly, these reviewers are not real people, but are, instead, shill accounts”.
When Guardian Money contacted Kamal, he told us he was contracted to post reviews about WAE+ and was paid for his services. It is understood he was contacted through Freelancer.com by someone under the name of “f0rtkn0x”. This is believed to be Ben Slater, operations director of WAE+.
“They hired me, but work wasn’t going well so he closed the projects. Someone from his company who was fired, started posting bad reviews, and reported all about the reviews WAE+ got from his clients and from from me.”
Guardian Money put the allegations to WAE+. It said: “There are no false reviews online about WAE+ for which WAE+ is knowingly responsible. There are, however, 3,500 online reviews that are by verified buyers of purchases, with the overwhelming majority very positive.”
“Laeknishendr [the URL behind the DNZA blog] came for a job interview with us and did not succeed. We have reason to believe that somebody hired a freelance person, in the guise of WAE+, to write some fake reviews for the purpose of the mentioned blogpost.”
Within an hour of the Guardian asking WAE+ about the allegations, the record of Kamal’s job on Freelancer.com was deleted, and the user f0rtkn0x changed the location given on his profile from the UK to the US and his display name to “jimneycard”. Either way, Kamal has confirmed that he was commissioned to write fake reviews about WAE+.
Kamal also told us about work he has done for AnnuitySupermarket.com, a “retirement solutions” company. Kamal’s profile on Freelancer.com includes a testimonial from what is believed to be the marketing director of AnnuitySupermarket.com. Kamal says the company paid him £125 to covertly post 30 ratings and reviews to a “popular directory”.
But Kamal says the annuity company started to get cold feet, asking him to stop the work as it feared the negative repercussions. “He said he might face problems and that he was asking his real clients to post reviews if they can,” said Kamal. “Sometimes a review website’s system removes reviews and then bans the company.” Kamal said: “[The company] still paid me some to keep it between me and him.”
We put the allegations to Annuity Supermarket, which said: “We have no comment to make other than all reviews are genuine customer testimonials.” It did confirm, in a telephone conversation with Guardian Money, that the marketing director has a profile on Freelancer.com.
Kamal told us that sometimes he is contracted to put up real reviews that have been sent to a company by customers, but which haven’t been posted on the all-important review sites.
How does he feel about posting up information under false names that may deceive shoppers and consumers? “What is not illegal on online? … You can’t find what is fake, or what is real,” he told
We also asked Trustpilot about the veracity of reviews on its site and what it does to prevent fake posts. It said: “Unfortunately, there does exist a black market for reviews and we take that very seriously. That’s why we’ve developed a system to zero-in on suspicious activity. We also rely on the Trustpilot community to help identify and investigate reviews, further ensuring their quality and authenticity.”
Fake reviews are likely to be illegal under consumer protection legislation, but are hugely tempting for companies to produce. Research has found that reading three negative reviews is enough to change the mind of 63% of consumers about making a purchase.
Companies paying for fake reviews are keen to cover their tracks and make reviews as believable as possible. For example, a posting by “mutaaly” on Freelancer.com, seeking writers for 180 fake 3-, 4- and 5-star reviews to be put on Reseller Ratings, Trustpilot and Sitejabber, requires them to be drip-fed on to the sites every two days, and states that they should not all be hyper-positive. A small number should be “3 star”, most “4 star” and a few “5 star”. The post says: “All reviews should be unique and well-crafted so that they look entirely natural. All reviews must be from unique email addresses/Facebook accounts. Reviews should be very different from each other – ie, one might say ‘Item was shipped quickly’ and another might say ‘A+ great service!!’ while another (3-star) might say ‘I was satisfied with their customer service’, etc.”
The Advertising Standards Authority said: “The strict Advertising Code prohibits advertisers from falsely claiming or implying they are acting as a consumer … companies should also be aware that the practice of posting fake reviews is likely to be illegal (under consumer protection regulations), and could be subject to investigation by Trading Standards or the Office of Fair Trading.”
In the US, the Federal Trade Commission decided in 2009 that paying for positive reviews without disclosing that the reviewer had been compensated, amounted to deceptive advertising and made offending companies liable for prosecution.
Amazon has begun to crack down on thousands of fake book reviews that have popped up on the site in recent years. Yelp, a popular US site that combines local reviews (30m so far) and social networking to create a local online community, said in November that it would be fighting fake reviews by naming and shaming companies and individuals found to be doing it. If Yelp finds evidence of attempts to pay for positive reviews, it puts up a 90-day consumer alert against the company.
But despite these crackdowns, the number of fake reviews is likely to continue growing, forecasts research firm Gartner. In a report last September it warned that one in seven posted online by the end of next year is likely to be false. Other estimates put the number as high as one in three.
But Gartner also warned that rather than paying for fake reviews, companies would switch to menacing individuals who have put up honest, but negative, reviews, demanding that they, or the site, remove them, or face legal action.
How to spot a fake
• Look for concrete details. Avoid reviews that provide abstract narratives about a product or customer-service experience. Give more trust to reviews that provide in?depth descriptions of the quality of the product or service.
• Avoid one-review accounts. Click on a user’s profile on review websites to get an indication of which other reviews the user has written.
• Beware reviews in poor English. Genuine customers may take little care with spelling and grammar, but some reviews sound as if they were translated from a foreign language. Give more credence to reviews written in well constructed and grammatically precise English.
• Skip over reviews overflowing with verbs, adverbs, hyperbole and praise that contains no caveats.
• Consider whether the reviewer’s purchase has been confirmed. Amazon and Trustpilot have ways to confirm whether a customer who left a review for a product has indeed purchased it, but this system can be abused.
• Seek company and product recommendations from reputable publications. Look to Which? and MoneySavingExpert.com rather than consumer review websites.
• Conduct in-depth research. Reviews left by users on consumer forums, where they’ve engaged with the community on a regular basis can provide sharper insights than reviews posted online, so look beyond page one of Google’s search results to get a better idea of a company’s reputation.