Amazon sellers know those five-star reviews are the key to lining their coffers—and the less-than-upstanding ones have figured out clever ways to game the system and get you to part with your dollars.
Commanding about half of all U.S. e-commerce, the world’s most valuable brand is the place where most Gen Z women say they discover new brands. And with 95 million U.S. Prime members spending an average of $1,400 each year on everything from almond butter to alpaca sweaters, it’s no wonder some unsavory sellers are willing to bend the rules to position their products for success.
An investigation by British consumer watchdog group Which? discovered the wheeling and dealing behind many of the five-star reviews that can lull shoppers into thinking they’re making a smart, sound purchase. People are still advertising their review-writing services in notorious Facebook Groups home to as many as 22,000 members apiece, though Which? claims many were dismantled following its 2018 investigation.
Reviews accompanied by photos are a “telltale sign” of the work coming out of these types of groups, according to the consumer group, which found 70 such groups active during its investigation.
The consumer group rightfully described chasing these groups, where sellers find people willing to exchange a stellar review for some sort of incentive, as a “game of whack a mole” that does little to solve the long-term problem.
eBay is caught up in the seller scandal, too. Which? found scores of eBay listings where people solicited sellers interested in paying for glowing reviews not only for Amazon products but also for TripAdvisor, Google, Trustpilot or “any other platform you desire.” For the right price, any Amazon merchant can purchase reviews that bump their products higher up in the e-commerce giant’s search rankings.
While these activities are a bit more “on the nose,” sellers are cleverly skirting Amazon’s defenses in ways more overtly designed to avoid detection. Which? uncovered abuse of the product variation feature that allows compliant merchants to group together the various size and color options for the same item under one product ID number or Amazon Standard Identification Number, i.e. ASIN.
However, bad actors exploit a loophole that lets them inundate the site with “spurious” variations of the same thing, like “Black1,” “Black2,” and “Black3,” Which? said.
“In one case we found five-star reviews from the same Amazon profile left across one hundred variations of a product,” the company noted. “Sellers can do this in order to flood their products with fake reviews through Amazon’s back door.”
Then there are the sellers who pull the old switcheroo—porting actual good reviews from dormant or unavailable products over to their active listings. Merchants seem to hope no one will notice the actual content of these reviews, especially when they have nothing to do with the product at hand.
Reviewers mentioned phone screen covers and soap dispensers in a rating for headphones, Which? noted, and “in some cases the merged reviews will even have been dated before the product appears to have gone on sale.”
Which? readers shared their own stories of eyebrow-raising reviews and seller behavior. Someone who wrote a negative review claimed the seller reached out three times offering a gift card if they upgraded the rating to five stars.
Another received eight requests from a seller asking to add two stars to a three-star review, for which they’d received a portion of their purchase price back. Others called out listings that received 300 reviews—from the same person.
This is far from the first time unsavory dealings by Amazon merchants have come to light. Last year reports surfaced of poorly compensated Amazon China employees accepting bribes from brokers for handing over competitors’ sales data.