Amazon’s Fake Review Problem is Worse Than Ever. Here’s Why.

Amazon’s efforts to clean up product reviews have sent the problem underground. Fake reviews are still around, but are harder to detect.

This post is by Chris McCabe, a former Investigation Specialist for Amazon’s Seller Performance team and founder of ecommerceChris.com.

Amazon has had a fake review problem for a long time. Up until late 2016, Amazon allowed sellers to give away products in return for a review. Those reviews were “honest and unbiased”, at least according to the disclaimers that reviewers sometimes added.

Back then, many sellers used product giveaways to increase their positive reviews. Amazon’s algorithms acted on the review data, search visibility went up, and buyers bought those items more often. Everyone went away happy, right? Well, at least the sellers did.

Then Amazon prohibited all incentivized reviews, and the problem swiftly went underground. Incentives continued to be offered, but away from the official discount code system, so Amazon couldn’t see the activity at all.

Fast forward to today, and a whole black market ecosystem has evolved. It’s focused on manipulating the Amazon reviews and search ranking systems, using a vast range of nefarious techniques. Amazon’s ban, ironically, has resulted in a fake review problem that makes the old behavior look quaint by comparison.

What do fake reviews on Amazon look like now?

Fake reviews that appear on the Amazon site today often appear as “verified purchases”, just like real reviews, with no indication of a connection between the buyer and the seller. This means that the reviewer actually bought the product from Amazon, which is a big indicator of authenticity in Amazon’s eyes. In reality, the purchase was funded by the seller using PayPal, an Amazon gift voucher, or other means.

To support these fake reviews, black hat service providers use automated buyer accounts (or “bots”) to upvote positive reviews for their seller clients, and downvote positive reviews for their competitors. Both buyers and Amazon appear unaware that this goes on.

Also, no one seems to know how to track associated buyer accounts for sellers who offer payment in exchange for four and five-star reviews (all five-star reviews might generate too much attention).

The same applies to accounts used to target honest sellers with fake negative reviews, and fake upvotes used to give those reviews extra weight. Sellers need to try and track competitor behavior if possible, because they may need to fight back if they are on the receiving end of an attack. Of course, fighting back has risks of its own and should be done under the supervision of an experienced consultant.

Is it safe to buy fake Amazon reviews?

I understand the strong temptation to follow the advice on many Facebook groups and use PayPal to buy positive reviews, or at least encourage reviewers to say something in your favor. I also understand that sellers often take a short term gain over long term account health. When they see competitors benefit, with no apparent enforcement from Amazon, it just doesn’t seem fair. But, despite Amazon’s current challenges in tackling fake reviews now, consider their track record in catching up with the times.

From what I can see in my daily account suspension work, this behavior eventually leads to a couple of outcomes.

  1. You’re tracked down and suspended by policy teams for “review manipulation”; or
  2. The reviews get deleted down the road, and possibly your account too.

If Amazon think you’ve solicited reviews in non-compliant ways you not only lose the reviews, but also your selling account. Amazon are only too happy to dig back months into your account history and punish you for ASINs, warnings, old listings or old behaviors that you haven’t done for a year or more. There’s no statute of limitations to protect you.

What are “review manipulation” Amazon account suspensions?

Sellers can get hooked on buying fake reviews. It feels like everybody is doing it, and they’re all posting about how successful it is. The thing is, people aren’t so quick to post when they get suspended.

If Amazon jump on you with both feet, due to regular reports and complaints of abuse, you will be forced to try and get your account reinstated AND come up with a new strategy to replace your old ways that were working so well.

Getting reinstated won’t be easy, either. If you tell them that you’ll no longer pursue that path, it will fall pretty flat now you’ve waited until you were caught to become a reformed character. Everyone claims to have mended their ways at first, and none of them are welcomed back with open arms by suddenly declaring an interest in proper behavior.

One of the main ways people get tripped up is with their automated review requests. It’s easy to see how sellers might think their email sequence won’t violate Amazon’s policies. But often it’s all about the first impression of your messages, not so much being able to defend the exact wording in a lengthy debate with policy teams.

What problems do fake reviews cause for Amazon?

If all this seem harmless to you, think again. Fake reviews hit at the very foundation of the Amazon marketplace, affecting buyer trust and buyer experience.

Sellers who play by the rules suffer from fake negative reviews, while their competitors accrue fake positive ones. It’s enough to drive some decent sellers away forever.

Amazon itself loses more faith in the validity of the reviews with each passing day. Ultimately, the integrity of the entire marketplace comes into troubling focus, and everyone asks why Amazon isn’t doing more.

Why aren’t Amazon doing more about fake reviews?

There are a number of internal reasons why the current situation is proving difficult for Amazon to address:

  1. It’s hard to scale the kind of investigation work needed. Most of the bad behavior now occurs off Amazon.
  2. So far it’s almost impossible to connect the buyer accounts associated with fake verified reviews back to the third-party “service providers” arranging them.
  3. Amazon are trying to reduce investigator headcount, not add to it, so this pulls them in the wrong direction.
  4. Managers within Amazon are not equipped to address such an unwieldy problem, given the lack of resources allocated for this type of large project.
  5. Higher-level Amazon executives don’t understand the scope of the problem.
  6. There are no fully-functional standard operating procedures which attack the core causes.
  7. And lastly, the greater public isn’t familiar with how this works and doesn’t know how much they should care about it, yet.

What can be done about fake reviews on Amazon?

There’s a lot of room for Amazon to improve its operations around fake product reviews. It only requires the will to proceed meaningfully, from the top layers of the executive teams, and an investment in quality investigations by the teams entrusted with marketplace protection.

The first step will be to assess how review abuse impacts the major Amazon marketplace stakeholders.

Sellers

Many sellers have been on the receiving end of fake negative reviews, and have reported the abuse via the standard channels, but with little success. Sellers need to do more than report abuse via Seller Central, or email Jeff or Seller Performance, or complain about it in Facebook groups. Until sellers learn the proper way to escalate to Product Review Abuse (PRA) managers, they can’t expect much movement or action.

Sellers should be willing to escalate to the teams that are responsible for policing this behavior, even if they feel like no one listens, cares, or takes any action.

Buyers

It’s obvious how bad this is for buyers, once they become aware of the problem.

Some buyers may understand that the overall rating is artificially inflated with biased reviews from friends and family, sure. But do they understand the extent of competitor attacks, leaving negative reviews with comments like “fake” or “unsafe” because they know Amazon scripts flag those instantly?

When will buyers worry that bots have upvoted or downvoted reviews or that other “buyers”, whose reviews they value because they are “verified purchases”, come from third-party service providers working for the seller? I’m not sure, but I don’t believe the current state of affairs will continue much longer.

Amazon

This problem is one of the biggest elephants in the room, because it strikes at the heart of buyer trust in the legitimacy of the marketplace.

If buyers stop believing the reviews they see, whether positive or negative, then the integrity of the site is at risk. While it may take time to develop new tools, and months to create fresh and effective investigator training strategies, there’s no time like the present for Amazon to begin. Hiding from the fake reviews problem won’t work much longer. Word is out.

This post was by Chris McCabe, founder of ecommerceChris.com. ecommerceChris shows Amazon sellers how to keep their accounts healthy, or, if the worst should happen, how to get their account back from a suspension.

You can book a consultation with Chris to review your reinstatement POA or escalation, or get help reporting competitors who manipulate reviews.

7 comments on “Amazon’s Fake Review Problem is Worse Than Ever. Here’s Why.

  1. The fake negative reviews that I receive are repetitive and they don’t talk about the product much at all. If they do they do so vaguely without any real details. Real reviewers don’t talk from the stand point of a seller. I think the more they restrict what is said to comments about the product the better.

    This problem has improved quite a bit IMO in the last 6 months. The problem I see with the guy I know who is doing it (yes, I have met them personally) is that they haven’t changed their behaviors after getting in trouble after I reported them and they have multiple other products doing the same crap. They have no inbound traffic from outside of Amazon and barely use PPC; people like this need to really get in trouble and banned if they get a second offense as Amazon needs to promote real brands. Companies that undercut prices with sketchy products and fake reviews could lead to Amazon having low quality products like how Kmart became associated. Google has a list of people’s names in a similar manner for manual penalties and as they have become stiffer with new penalties it has been a factor in them cleaning things up over years.

    I am guessing Amazon continues to improve over time with this. For now I have reported a seller who offers inventivised reviews on his website and gotten mixed reviews. Sometimes they get in big trouble, sometimes reviews get erased, and sometimes they get in no trouble at all. I hope it becomes more predictable that when people break the rules they consistently get dealt with.

  2. Great article Chris. I believe Amazon is complicit with the fake reviews because it leads to more sales. They were fine with incentivized reviews until customers started noticing. Nowadays customers do not realize how many reviews are fake, and reporters are not calling out Amazon about the issue. Amazon is the king of creating algorithms and there are a few simple algorithms that would clean up the marketplace in an instant. Example – Monitoring Review-to-Orders Ratio would clean up at least 95% of the listings with fake reviews that I come across.

    Here’s some research I did that shows the extent of the issue of Amazon fake reviews and how some sellers are building fake review empires:

    A brief summary of how one Chinese company is manipulating Amazon, and Amazon allows them to continue selling:

    There is a man named Long You, the President of Sundix Inc. and Usagi International. https://www.corporationwiki.com/p/2gctsm/long-yu

    Each of these parent companies, own a lot of other companies that are all selling on Amazon, many of the same exact product, and all are loaded with fake reviews, often hundreds.

    Here’s Sundix American subsidiaries per Official Florida State website: http://search.sunbiz.org/Inquiry/CorporationSearch/SearchResults/OfficerRegisteredAgentName/sundix/Page1

    Here are Sundix trademarks that they own directly:
    https://trademarks.justia.com/search?type=trademark_owner&q=sundix

    Here’s Usagi’s American subsidiaries per Official Florida State website:
    http://search.sunbiz.org/Inquiry/CorporationSearch/SearchResults/OfficerRegisteredAgentName/usagi/Page1

    One of Usagi subsidiaries, Gainesville Cable Retail, LLC – Owns Adoric Trademark https://trademarks.justia.com/868/70/adoric-86870092.html

    Sundix has many duplicates of the same exact product listing. Each listing that Sundix launches immediately gets countless verified 5 star reviews, becomes a very good seller, and eventually starts to get bad reviews from real customers. That’s when they launch the next duplicate listing through the same process.

    Sunnest Star projector https://www.amazon.com/dp/B074N55291/
    Sunnest #2 https://www.amazon.com/dp/B075SY5V7G
    Adoric Star projector https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06XSSLH32/

    If you look at review images from the Adoric brand you will see Sunnest logo.

    Sunnest is a trademark owned by a Sundix Inc. subsidiary – Duractron, LLC. https://trademarks.justia.com/868/70/sunnest-86870094.html

    As you might notice, there are different sellers on the listings, but you start to see the same names twice. At the bottom of this comment you’ll find an incomplete list of seller accounts and brands that are owned by Sundix/Usagi.

    You’ll also find sellers like Benewell and Toplus sell products from both Adoric and their own brand name. If you have a Amazon Business buying account you can see that these sellers are selling thousands to tens of thousands of orders per month.

    -snip-

  3. I totally agree that things have begun to change, Amazon is beginning to understand the size of the problem and grapple with it on the headcount and perhaps even tools building side. But there’s a lot of work to do, and so far things are moving very slowly. Hope to see more progress as the year goes on.

    Beyond that, make sure you’re reporting this violator properly, and keep at it, escalations and follow ups. Don’t give up! They need more examples of abuse to develop the best tools and SOPs. Thanks for the comment.

  4. And unfortunately, they’ve gone too far the other way with trying to stop it.

    I found this site because I’m trying to figure out why I’ve been perma-banned from reviewing. I am a regular Amazon customer, have been since 2001. Been a Prime member since they first offered it.

    I’m not a top reviewer, never have been. I have never been given a product free or discounted for a review. Have never had any interaction with a seller outside Amazon at all, every contact has gone through Amazon Marketplace email.

    I’ve only ever had two reviews kicked back to me – once for mentioning a price in a review, and another for saying I didn’t receive the product at all (something from China, left the review at 60 days past order date, and there were other published reviews saying same).

    The only thing I can think that might have raised a flag is that I left a review when I was annoyed by a seller pestering me for a review (via Amazon Marketplace emails), for an extension cord. Sarcastically, I said – “Seller begs a review, so here goes. It’s an extension cord. It has a 3-prong male plug at one end, and three 3-prong female plugs at the other end. It carries electricity from one end to the other.”

    Heuristically, if they did actually take the time to look, they’d see that I have never gone straight to some product and purchased it – I search for something, look at several before selecting one. I buy the same types of products from different sellers, only rarely do I go back to a seller I liked and buy something different (but still within the same family of products, for example aquarium supplies).

    I do tend to leave my reviews in batches, because Amazon is set up that way. When they send you the reminder in email (Amazon Marketplace itself, not an individual seller), it brings you to a page where you can review everything you haven’t previously reviewed.

    This was actually how I’d discovered my suspension as well. They didn’t send me anything – it was when I went to review something and saw that the first thing on the review page was something I knew I’d already left a review for (I was in fact the first/only reviewer for it). And then discovered that all my reviews had disappeared.

    At that time I called Customer Service and asked about it, and was told that it was just a glitch while they were updating their review system. The CSRep said he’d reviewed my account and seen no violations, assured me that my reviews were still ‘there’, and that they should reappear in 11 days or so.

    Then this morning, I get the ‘you’ve been suspended forever and this is final’ email. And I still have no idea what it is I’ve done, or what flagged my account/reviews.

    Called Customer Service again, and the rep assured me they’d look into it – but then the conversation got cut off, and I didn’t call them back.

    Since 2001, the only time I’ve had to call Customer Service has been when a Kindle was stolen (called to report it stolen so it would be registration-blocked). However, since April of this year, I’ve had to call CS at least five times – three times for items horribly packed (no damage to outer box) that were destroyed in shipment, and now twice over reviews. Was already beginning to reconsider some of my subscription-purchases (the three destroyed items were on monthly Subscribe&Save, and were being thrown in with larger S&S items, same box and no cushioning – the larger items were crushing the smaller.)

    At this point, I am definitely not feeling like a valued customer. Especially when nobody seems to be able to tell me why I have been forever-banned from reviewing, with no warning and no explanation. I don’t see how any of the reviews I’ve ever made, other than the one mentioned, could be considered ‘not-real’, especially given my purchase history (stretching back 17 years). They were all real, normal, upfront purchases – but I don’t know how I’d prove that. Give them access to my PayPal account so they can see that all the transactions there are outgoing, none incoming? Give them access to my bank account? Where do I go from here?

    I’m kinda left with trying to decide if I want to continue to do as much business with a company that believes I’ve violated their rules; and if I want to buy things knowing that I can’t share my experiences of those things (good or bad). I also have subscriptions to Kindle Unlimited and Cloud, I have Subscribe and Save monthly items, I am a Prime member – all from way back. And I’ve replaced most of my physical books with Kindle editions. Do they really think I’d risk an account that has so much with them, going so far back, just to give a seller some feedback they hadn’t earned?

    Sorry for the long comment, I just don’t know where to go from here. I’m still more than a little stunned. I am all for the idea of getting rid of fake feedback, but at the same time I am a real customer who feels like I’ve been tried, sentenced and found guilty when I still don’t even know what the actual crime was. 🙁

  5. @Melita
    So glad to have found your post here and realize – I’m not alone.

    Seems like most larger corporations that ignore a problem when they finally get a fire under them they overcompensate and “throw the baby out with the bathwater”.

    I too have no idea why my account reviewing privileges were suspended. Heck, I can’t communicate at all publicly on Amazon.

    I too have been an Amazon customer for YEARS. Since they started only selling books and occasional software.

    All I can think of is that after being injured and NEEDING Amazon for goods related to my injury and resulting surgery, I was reviewing all the pre and post surgical products in one bunch after not being able to do much on a computer for months.

    Maybe this red flagged, but their accusations of having relationships with sellers or gaining payment for reviews was so disheartening to me after being through a major traumatic accident, surgery and difficult recovery that I’ve refused to personally purchase on Amazon for the last four to five months. If I absolutely need something I have a family member buy and ship it to me.

    There is no such thing as “too big to fail” only “too big to have common sense and treat people right” all in pursuit of ever growing gains.

    It’s sad, Amazon really was almost THE pioneer in bringing products to your door through the Internet. Too bad they have an opinion of themselves that far outreaches the reality of who they really are, and how they truly treat people in the race for the almighty “dollar”.

  6. If I were Amazon, I will open some review service to provide fake reviews. So I will know which sellers potentially use fake reviews to grow their business on Amazon. lol

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