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Reviews and ratings should inspire confidence while shopping, but Amazon’s system is still easy to game with fake reviews.

Two weeks ago, I received a postcard from Amazon—or, at least, I thought it was from Amazon. On second glance, I realized it was actually from one of the marketplace sellers who operate on Amazon.

They offered me a tempting deal: they’d send me €20 ($21.65 USD) via PayPal for a review on an oil sprayer that only costs €10 ($10.82 USD). Here’s how they explained how it would work:

  1. I write a 5-star review (no length requirement).
  2. I email them my order number, a screenshot of my published review, and my PayPal address for payment.

Sounds like an easy win-win, right? So, I tried it.

It only took Amazon about two days to do an internal check of my review, and then my review appeared on the product page. After I emailed a screenshot of my published review, I received payment in two hours.

The payment came from China, and the sender even covered my transaction costs so that €20.07 ($21.72 USD) ended up in my account. The sender sent a total of €21.60 ($23.38 USD).

Who is the sender? I only see Chinese characters as the “delivery address” in PayPal, and the company can’t be identified in the translation. But the company headquarters are in Shenzhen, the third largest city in China and the production site for many goods shipped overseas.

What does Amazon do about fake reviews?

The first problem is that Amazon isn’t aware when these marketplace sellers “recruit” fake reviewers because contact is made outside the Amazon system. The seller gets the buyer’s address from a previous purchase, then reaches out directly.

The second problem is that anyone can leave a “verified review” on any product as long as they 1) purchased it via Amazon and 2) paid a reasonable price for that purchase (e.g., it wasn’t free). When reviewing, the buyer can give whatever rating and write whatever they want.

The issue of fake verified reviews isn’t new and Amazon claims to be taking measures to fight it. According to their page on How We Keep Reviews Trustworthy and Useful:

If […] someone offers you compensation to create, edit, or remove a review, please tell us. See the How to report violations section in our Community Guidelines.

So, I did that.

A few days later, I received an email from “Amazon Review Moderation,” and here’s the essential part of their response:

Any attempts to manipulate customer reviews will be investigated and consistently pursued. We take reports like yours very seriously. Our team will investigate whether the reported activity violates Amazon’s Community Guidelines and take appropriate action if necessary.

As the product is still up with almost 100 new (!) 5-star ratings in just under two weeks, the last two sentences in the review moderation team’s email are rather questionable:

Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to provide you with any further information about any action that may have been taken. However, we are grateful to you for helping to enable other customers to make informed purchasing decisions through authentic customer reviews.

How to shop smartly on Amazon despite all the fake reviews

Product reviews on Amazon are good for both customers (“trust”) and marketplace sellers (“reputation”). Positive reviews encourage buying while negative reviews discourage it.

Back in 2020, independent review analysis site Fakespot found that 42 percent of all reviews published on Amazon were not genuine. Since then, Amazon has tightened up and spent more than $700 million per year to track down and delete over 200 million fake reviews.

So, until Amazon revamps their entire system, what can you do about fake reviews when shopping on Amazon?

I still look at product reviews, but I pay most attention to the 1-star and 2-star reviews. If most of them have the same points of criticism, then I usually give them more weight than praise.

When it comes to 4-star and 5-star reviews, look at their published dates. Too many positive reviews within a short period of time should be treated as suspicious or bought, even if they are “verified.”

I also search Amazon to see if the same exact product has other listings by other marketplace sellers. Why would one listing have a 3.1-star rating while another has a 4.4-star rating? In that case, I dive into the reviews to see what insights I can glean.

Lastly, research the product outside of Amazon. Look for user testimonies on forums and Facebook groups, and find trusted reviews by people who have a legitimate record of independent testing and honest opinions.

Keep all of this in mind as Amazon Prime Day approaches! Expect a lot of trickery as sellers try to boost sales during this hot event.