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(InvestigateTV) — Pixeled stars left with online reviews often play an integral role in deciding whether to buy a product or not. But experts warn those seemingly honest reviews are often saturated with fakery, with small business owners and consumers left to deal with the consequences of buying a potentially shoddy product.

Robby Comia has first-hand experience with those consequences. He and his family love traveling in their old Honda Odyssey van, oftentimes to visit his mom in Virginia Beach.

But outside of those family road trips, the van typically sits in Comia’s garage.

“We don’t drive it that often,” Comia said. “We have two other cars that we are usually driving for work.”

Comia said because the car sits in the garage without being moved, the battery died. So, he went on Amazon to buy a portable battery jump starter.

After reading reviews, Comia was convinced he had found the product that would jump start his van. He soon discovered, however, that wasn’t the case.

“I popped the hood, I hooked everything up the way the instructions were, there was a charge on the jump starter, and nothing happened,” Comia said.

He tried the jump starter several times the next morning without success.

Comia ultimately decided to return the jump starter, leaving a negative review on the company’s Amazon page in the process.

In his review, which he titled, “Worthless piece of,” Comia wrote: “Tried the charger. Nothing. Pushed the van and used jumper cables. Battery died again between driving. Tried charger again with same result. Absolute trash. Returned for a refund.”

Around a month after requesting a refund, Comia received an apology email from the company, in which a representative offered a full refund as one of several “optional solutions.”

“At first I mean, it felt strange just because it hadn’t happened before,” Comia said. “I leave positive and negative reviews on Amazon because we use it for so many things.”

One proposed solution: a $50 Amazon gift card in exchange for “helping [the company] to delete the review.”

The company Robby originally shopped from to buy the portable jump starter reached out via e-mail. Sending an email hoping to solve his issue, but also hoping he’d consider removing his negative review.(InvestigateTV)

The company Robby originally shopped from reached out via e-mail hoping to resolve his issue but also asked him to consider removing his negative review. (InvestigateTV)

“At first it just felt strange, but then the more you I thought about it, I was like, this is kinda like a bribe, because you’re asking me to you know, not really lie about your product, but to withhold information that could have been helping somebody else,” Comia said.

InvestigateTV reached out to the Hong Kong-based company but did not hear back.

Growing trend of fake testimonials

According to a study by internet marketing service Uberall, 90% of consumers use reviews before buying, with 66% agreeing that fake reviews, which are illegal, are a major problem.

Companies benefit from positive reviews for numerous reasons, including driving purchases, visibility online and establishing trust. In an effort to garner positive feedback, some companies have implemented a new tactic: sending customers a thank you card with an offer for a gift card if they leave a positive review on the product they purchased.

Companies are now sending “thank you” cards to consumers in hopes that they will leave positive reviews to skew their ratings.(InvestigateTV)

InvestigateTV has uncovered the problems created by fake reviews through our series “Five Star Fakes,” showcasing stories from small businesses battling fakes to save their reputations, to experts warning about deceptive reviews. Groups dedicated to buying and selling phony reviews were removed from social media platforms as a result of our investigation.

“This is organized,” Kay Dean, founder of Fake Review Watch, said. “This doesn’t happen organically.”

InvestigateTV reached out to Amazon about its efforts to eliminate fake reviews left beneath products on its site. In a written statement, a spokesperson for Amazon said: “We aim to prevent fake reviews from ever appearing in our store and in 2022, we proactively blocked more than 200 million suspected fake reviews.”

On Facebook, another site vulnerable to bogus assessments, a search for “fake reviews” will result in a warning message that says, “The term you searched for is something associated with fraudulent activity, which isn’t allowed on Facebook.”

Warning message from Facebook shows consumers that searching terms like "fake reviews" will...
Now when consumers search up “fake reviews” on Facebook, this warning message shows up saying the search term is related to fraudulent activity. Fake reviews are illegal.(InvestigateTV)

Meanwhile, the Better Business Bureau is warning consumers of a new scam that is padding reviews for companies.

In the so-called “brushing” scheme, consumers will receive unordered merchandise from typically foreign, third-party sellers who obtained their address online. They then will make it look like the consumer – now appearing to be a verified buyer – who received the product wrote a glowing online review to improve their products’ ratings.

While consumers can keep the items, they are often cheap and/or poorly made.

“It’s not going to be A quality, it’s going to be B, C, D, or E quality,” said Barry Moore, president and CEO of Virginia’s local chapter of the BBB.

Worse, it’s likely a sign the consumer’s personal information has been leaked online.

Moore himself has been duped by fake online reviews.

“I bought a pair of shoes, it was legitimate. They showed up, but they’re not what they pictured in the picture,” Moore said.

The federal government’s proposal

The Federal Trade Commission has proposed a new rule to crack down on inauthentic reviews. The agency’s goal is to “stop marketers from using illicit review and endorsement practices such as using fake reviews, suppressing honest negative reviews, and paying for positive reviews.”

“If the rule is implemented, we would be able to seek civil penalties up to $50,000 per violation of the rule, which can up very, very quickly and be quite significant,” said Michael Ostheimer, senior attorney for the Division of Advertising Practices at the FTC.

Ostheimer said the FTC believes that fake reviews and testimonials are prevalent and harm consumers as well as businesses.

“Fake reviews that were written or the incentivized five-star reviews that were bought and they could be very disappointed in the product or perhaps more seriously, they could hire a lawyer or a doctor, dentist, a mover based on fake reviews and have real harm happen when the person provides very bad service,” Ostheimer said.

“We think that this rule would allow us to get tougher and to have real teeth behind what we do,” he continued.

Complaints from consumers, competitors, and consumer groups help the FTC crackdown on bad apples.

The proposed rule would not affect social media companies, Ostheimer said, which are exempt under “The Consumer Decency Act,” effectively giving them and other online platforms immunity for content written by third parties.

“False consumer reviews may line the pockets of businesses that provide inferior products for which the reviews indicate they are good products… As a consumer and someone who is concerning about online practices that defraud and cheat consumers, I think this rule is needed,” one consumer said in a public comment about the proposed rule.

“I see businesses that aren’t even open yet and somehow magically they have tons of 5 star reviews on Google….super suspect,” another said.

The Federal Trade Commission has proposed a new rule to stop companies from eliciting reviews....
The Federal Trade Commission has proposed a new rule to stop companies from eliciting reviews. Here are two comments left from consumers about their thoughts on the new rule.(InvestigateTV)

Nonprofits have also weighed in on the proposed rule with mixed reviews.

According to Ostheimer, the proposed rule is still under review and should be finalized sometime in the next year or two.

Back on the road

Comia is back on the road after buying a different jump starter online.

“I ignored the email and didn’t do what they asked me to do,” Comia said. “I didn’t take down my negative review.”

Comia said this experience didn’t leave him feeling confident about reviews moving forward.

“It’s a way of like padding good reviews for your product and then they’re not real and they’re not being sold honestly,” Comia said.

He believes social media companies share some of that responsibility.

Takeaways

  • Here’s how to spot fake reviews.

Follow these tips to keep your personal information safe and be aware of what to do in the event you receive unsolicited merchandise:

  • Notify the retailer. Brushing and fake reviews are against Amazon’s policies, so contact Amazon Customer Service if this happens to you and the product appears to come from Amazon. They will investigate and take action against the bad actor. Amazon also takes security seriously and encourages customers to report fraudulent purchases or other security issues. If the package appears to come through another established business, go directly to their website to get their contact information. If you prefer to contact the business by phone, be cautious about searching for support phone numbers.
  • Attempt to identify the sender. If you can identify the sender of unordered packages, consider checking for potential false reviews in your name and ask for the reviews to be removed.
  • Check your account for recent orders. Some targets of brushing scams can be deluged with unordered packages, creating a serious problem. If this happens, consider whether to refuse package delivery at your home address and temporarily direct items that you ordered to a package acceptance service.
  • Change your account passwords. This may be a sign that personal information has been compromised, and to improve account security, keep a close eye on credit reports and credit card bills.
  • You are allowed to keep the merchandise. The Federal Trade Commission says you have a legal right to keep unordered merchandise.
  • Protect your identity. BBB advises to take all necessary precautions to prevent identity theft. Be careful when entering personal information online, and ensure you use a secure site.
  • Look up a business to see if it is accredited.

When reading reviews, experts also recommend to look through the two and four-star reviews and to be skeptical of the one and five stars.

But the best advice experts give is word of mouth.

To read full statements from Amazon:

Copyright 2023 Gray Media Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

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