Emerging Threat of Fake Online Reviews

By | June 25, 2016

After researching and writing about the light-hearted topic of death for the past few weeks, something serious has come to my attention. I need to put down the lollipops and gumdrops today and get real with you all for a moment. There has been a subversive movement growing right underneath our eyes, a force silently threatening to tear down the very pillars of society, an insidious epidemic of epic proportions that, if not stopped soon, could seal our economy’s fate…if we don’t act before it’s too late. I’m talking about falsified online product reviews.

It started harmlessly enough with a few college pranksters. By way of example, there was a friend of mine in college circa 2001 who informed my friends and me of a story involving his brother. Said brother had recently purchased a new Xbox. Upon receipt of this inferior gaming system, he decided to try a social experiment on eBay. This story is not for the faint of heart, so if you’re the least bit squeamish, please heed my warning and skip the rest of this intro.

He wrote an ad on eBay, an ad for an “Xbox Box.” To be fair, he thoroughly and accurately described what he was selling by writing “This is just an Xbox box, not the actual gaming system. All you will receive is an empty box.” But then he listed the box for the actual retail price of the gaming system, merely to see if an incompetent, gullible consumer might be foolish enough to make the purchase. We all thought to ourselves, “Surely no one will actually purchase this! Consumers are rational and make well-informed, responsible decisions!”

If someone were to be so empty-headed as to make this purchase, it would open the door to a whole new world of fraudulent commerce. We were all too naive to foresee the horrific implications of this act, but it threatened to tear the very fabric of trust on which this country was built…potentially even the fabric of space/time itself. A black hole of evil was sprouting right before our eyes, and America stood swirling around the event horizon.

Some dimwitted doofus, without a shred of due diligence, made that click…and changed America forever. He purchased an empty Xbox box for $299. I don’t know anything about the man, but I pictured a white male, aged 35, clicking that button, credit card in hand and warm smile on his face, glowing about his contribution to his seven-year-old son’s happiness bank for the upcoming birthday celebration, only to be destroyed three-to-seven days later by a box emptier than the black hole from which it was purchased. Or maybe he didn’t even open the box before wrapping a curiously light package and giving it to his son, only to witness the horror play out first on the child’s face. He was only a boy, goddamnit!

Crying Boy Empty Box for Birthday

I didn’t think much about the Xbox box ordeal for a number of years. But then it seemed to leak its way back into my life, one Internet retailer product at a time, slowly infiltrating a system that was once as airtight as our fiat-currency financial system. I suddenly found myself paralyzed, unable to make a click, eBay, Amazon, or anywhere else, for I couldn’t find the confidence after wading through review after review for indoor table-top fountains I had hoped would liven up my living room and/or kitchen in my newly purchased home. That’s when I realized the extent to which the damage had been done, the genesis of which was the Xbox box fracas of 2001.

The Crisis – Present Day

The origin of today’s crisis was a rather straightforward sale to a sucker, a lazy sucker who failed to pay attention to details. But the present situation is much more complicated. Ironically, the issue now lies in the very process created to avoid such situations, the online review process.

Taking a page from the successful playbook of democracy, online retailer Amazon leapt to the rescue by implementing a system of online reviews through which customers could vote and make public comment on the quality of any online product. The move was genius on the surface as this would surely sniff out and deter fraudsters from selling crap to the public. It’s only a matter of time, however, before any good process is turned bad by those looking to take advantage of others.

One such organization of terror has done just that, creating misinformation, spreading fear, and destroying confidence, confidence in a system that online consumers have grown dependent upon for researching and purchasing everything from self-help books and herbal supplements to bulk subscriptions of toilet paper and diapers. To my knowledge, no one has yet released the name of the terrorist organization, but I now believe that making the public aware of them by name is the best way to stop their momentum.

The organization has been dubbed the Deplorable Internet Confidence Killers, or DICKs for short. In response to the rise of this organization of DICKs, my colleagues and I have also started a task force we initially intended to name DISCOVER (Dedicated Internet Sales Coalition for Online Vetting of E-commerce Risk), but we are now reevaluating that decision so as not to create any unintentional name associations with the credit card company. It is of utmost importance that we continue to preserve and restore faith in online transactions, and getting Discover (the credit card) mixed up in this mess, even if only by name of the task force created to solve the problem, is a risk we simply weren’t willing to take.

Deplorable Internet Confidence Killers - DICKs Logo

This organization of DICKs now writes phony or exaggerated reviews of crappy products to lure the rational consumer into making a bad purchase. And we aren’t talking about suckers like the worst dad ever who bought his son an empty box for his birthday, we’re talking about rational consumers, consumers who do all they can to diligently research a purchase decision to make sure they get it right. You, in fact, are probably one of these rational consumers. Whether you know it or not, you have probably been duped more times than not.

Don’t believe me? How probable is it that you have been duped, you may be wondering? According to a Time.com article, research shows upwards of 30% of online product reviews to be fake, and potentially 10% of service industry reviews such as hotels and restaurants to be equally fake. That means if you spent a billion dollars buying products online with your Amazon Prime account last year, you may have been duped to the tune of $300,000,000…not a insignificant sum of money. Do I have your attention now? I thought so.

The DICKs have refined and diversified their strategies over the years, and it is only by spreading this knowledge (to the right people, without letting the DICKs know what we know) that we can defend ourselves against them. As of this writing, the following are the known tactics of the DICKs:

DICK Move #1: Bribery and Payoffs

Sellers have come to learn how much we trust these online reviews for researching everything we buy, and the DICKs among them have begun to take advantage. Many of them have started offering free products, discounts, and even money outright for leaving rosy product reviews making a bad product look good and a fake product look legit. That’s right, G-Ma.1937 might be fudging the truth when she writes:

Stain-Be-Gone-Now-Ya-Hear! stain remover LITERALLY removed the blood/urine/wine/marinara stain right from my blouse with only one drop and a brief scrub with a cloth! And with this amazing gallon-sized bottle at only $699, I’ll be able to use it until I die and pass it down to my grandchildren! Thanks for bringing this grandma such peace for her dwindling amount of time left on this earth!

What I find perhaps even more disturbing is that the DICKs even trained a poor seventy-nine-year-old lady to use a computer to help them pull off this scam. She probably wasn’t even compensated…except for the discounts and free products…or maybe money. Okay, she was likely compensated but still used and traumatized.

DICK Move #2: Advertisers Posing As Real Customers

As the DICKs have evolved, they have turned into quite the actors and chameleons, masters of disguise and deceit. Piggy-backing off the previous example, it’s also quite likely G-Ma.1937 isn’t a grandma at all, nor is she seventy-nine years old…or even a “she.” The “she” could actually be a DICK in disguise, a mole within the ranks of the actual company trying to sell you the product, posting wondrous reviews for something this person probably never even used. The company itself may be none the wiser, or perhaps it’s an entire company of DICKs, but one thing is for sure; you are the one getting screwed.

DICK Move #3: Lazy Reviewing and Competition Trolling

Most of the time the tactics of the DICKs are extremely precise and well-crafted, but much like the rest of us, they only have so many resources. Not all potential victims are wise consumers, and sometimes DICKs will go with simple methods to capture the low-hanging fruit. Occasionally the following product reviews are enough to get uneducated consumers to pull the trigger:

This Jimmy John’s sub holder rocks! Five starts!

Best squirrel trap ever! By far! Five stars!

Best woman trap ever! I get so many more women now! Five stars!

This “simple, unintelligent, non-factual, emotionally-targeted, and completely lacking in content and reasoning” method can also be employed to dissuade consumers from purchasing a competitor’s product:

This Jimmy John’s sub holder from Sub Holders of America SUXXXXX! I totally bought the one from Lazy Sub instead, and it actually held a sub…WITHOUT breaking!!!!! Zero stars.

This squirrel trap is the worst. I haven’t even seen a single squirrel in my yard since buying it. In fact, I never saw a squirrel before buying it either. Zero stars.

This woman trap is lame. Came broken in the box. Don’t buy. It’s probably illegal anyway. Zero stars.

Even if these reviews don’t do much to convince you to buy (or not buy, depending on the goal) the one thing they do accomplish is skewing the ratings average in one direction or another thus potentially influencing the decision of folks who only buy 4-5 star ratings. It’s a terrifying game that works on multiple levels, and we are all paying the price, literally and figuratively.

DICK Move #4: Sucking up to Search Engines

More and more we are finding reviews that, on the surface, seem to make no sense:

This widget 360 model number 257BA ten-inch dynamic is clearly the best of its kind! You will not be disappointed! Five stars.

What is all that incoherent psychobabble, you may be wondering? In this case, the DICKs aren’t playing you (directly), they’re playing the search engines by stuffing all the keywords that people would use to search specific products in Google. Or other search engines. Okay, let’s be serious, it’s Google (no one’s using Bing).

In doing this they are making it more likely that their company’s product will show up more reliably on the first page of a Google search making it more likely that theirs is the link you’ll click on because, well, some of you are lazy and will just click and buy the first one you see. In this case the product may actually be the best one, the DICKs are just doing a sneakily good job of playing by the rules so you buy theirs first. Nevertheless, we suggest you go somewhere else and buy a competitor’s product out of spite. Spite is like kryptonite to the DICKs, one of the best defense weapons we have.

DICK Move #5: Using Online Reviews as a Comedy Forum (Amazon Graffiti)

This tactic is both the most diabolical and also probably the least harmful of the bunch. While we all get a good laugh out of it and a break from reading way more reviews than we need to for the sake of buying an umbrella guaranteed not to invert in the wind, it does distract us from our ultimate goal.

By far the most well-known examples of Amazon Graffiti are the product reviews made on The Mountain Three Wolf Moon Short Sleeve T-shirt (please click here to read some for yourself). Here’s one such review of the wolf shirt:

George Takei Amazon Review of Wolf Shirt

We are currently investigating this Amazon user by the name of George Takei (and his alias of Zulu), but for now it would be wise for all consumers to assume he is probably a member of the DICKs organization.

Fighting Back

Despite the threat that this DICKs organization poses, and the damage they have already caused, it is comforting to know that the issue is now getting the attention it deserves by entities who have the financial and political weight to put an end to this whole mess. According to CNN, Amazon is in the process of suing more than 1,000 sellers of fake product reviews. And, of course, we here at Bert Betterman are in the process of creating a task force that will be named something other than DISCOVER (final name still pending).

But what can you do to protect yourself against the DICKs? Educate. Knowledge is power, so familiarize yourself these most frequent red flags of fake reviews :

  • Over-the-top praise or negativity (most real products are just okay and somewhat unimpressive)
  • Formal product names, model numbers, and tech-marketing jargon (search engine suck-ups)
  • Lots of short, generic reviews with 5 stars (just trying to boost ratings averages)
  • Very general complaints without explaining what was bad (likely competitor trolling)
  • Very vague praise without really explaining why they are praising it but rather just insisting that you “trust me” and things will be great again (the “Trump” method)

Trump Trust Me That's All You Need to Know

For an even more complete list of ways to help spot a fake review, you can check out this article from Consumerist that has 30 of them (that’s the most I have counted so far).

Perhaps an even more effective safety device is the program created here at Fakespot (not to be confused with Fakeblock). Fakespot allows you to paste the Amazon link for a product onto their page where it uses an algorithm to review the reviews for potential red flags and give the product a grade on trustworthiness. Essentially, if you didn’t read any of this post or don’t intend to implement anything you read, you can just let Fakespot worry about it all just like the way you let your smartphone run the rest of your life.

I cannot reiterate enough, however, the importance of education and knowledge-spreading in this war against fake online reviews. If you have seen any and have good examples, please, please, PLEASE post them in the comments section here below. If you have any other tips or advice for spotting fake reviews, put those in the comments as well. And share this post with your friends and family so they too can be alerted to this issue of national security. Together, we can fight the DICKs.


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