Amazon is coming after bad actors on social media in an effort to clamp down on incentivized and misleading reviews. The e-commerce giant filed lawsuits against the administrators of more than 10,000 groups on Facebook, which recently rebranded as Meta, that it claims are orchestrating fake reviews on Amazon in exchange for money or free products.
The tech titan said in a statement that the groups are set up to recruit individuals willing to post incentivized and misleading reviews on Amazon’s stores in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Japan.
This litigation comes a year after the company publicly called out social media firms in a widely circulated blog post, saying that they need to proactively invest in fraud and fake review controls. Amazon’s post came three days after a Wall Street Journal article outlined Amazon’s continuing problems with fake and inflated reviews.
Amazon says it will use information discovered in the lawsuit, filed in Seattle’s King County Superior Court, to identify bad actors and remove fake reviews commissioned by these fraudsters that haven’t already been detected by its advanced technology, expert investigators and continuous monitoring.
Amazon officially banned incentivized reviews from its platform in October 2016.
“Our teams stop millions of suspicious reviews before they’re ever seen by customers, and this lawsuit goes a step further to uncover perpetrators operating on social media,” said Dharmesh Mehta, Amazon’s vice president of Selling Partner Services. “Proactive legal action targeting bad actors is one of many ways we protect customers by holding bad actors accountable.”
The fraudulent actors behind such groups solicit fake reviews for hundreds of products available for sale on Amazon. One of the groups identified in the lawsuit is “Amazon Product Review,” which had more than 43,000 members until Facebook parent Meta took down the group earlier this year.
Counteracting these actors can be difficult. Many of the Facebook groups in question are private, and require potential new members to provide proof that they’re an Amazon seller or reviewer in order to be admitted. Amazon said in its complaint that its investigations revealed some of the tactics the group’s administrators use to hide their activity and evade Facebook’s detection. Posters will often try to skirt Facebook’s moderators by obfuscating phrases or misspelling words.
The implications of these reviews are far-reaching. If a product has a large number of positive reviews, it boosts the seller’s visibility on the Amazon marketplace. And for the sellers that don’t get much traction and have minimal reviews, their product might not be exposed to most consumers—indicating that the playing field can tilt unfairly toward sellers who solicit incentivized reviews.
And federal regulators have apparently taken notice, with a Recode report from May 2021 indicating that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) pressured Amazon to take action against those engaging in these review schemes.
The company’s fight against incentivized and misleading reviews goes hand in hand with another ongoing concern for Amazon—counterfeit goods. Since 2020, the tech titan has sought to change public perception that it doesn’t do enough to curb the problem, establishing its own Counterfeit Crimes Unit (CCU) and partnering with other brands such as Hanesbrands, Valentino, Salvatore Ferragamo, Yeti and others in high-profile crackdowns.
In 2021, the online marketplace stopped more than 2.5 million attempts to create fraudulent selling accounts, according to the company’s second annual Brand Protection Report.
Amazon says it has more than 12,000 employees around the world dedicated to protecting its marketplace from fraud and abuse, including fake reviews. A dedicated team investigates fake review schemes on social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, and regularly reports the abusive groups to those companies. Amazon has previously said it uses a combination of the human moderators and machine-learning tools to try to curb fake reviews.
Since 2020, Amazon has reported more than 10,000 fake review groups to Meta. Of these, Meta has taken down more than half of the groups for policy violations and continues to investigate others.
The company says it has proactively stopped more than 200 million suspected fake reviews in 2020 alone. And in the past year, legal action from Amazon has shut down multiple major review brokers targeting customers in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Italy and Spain. The “everything store” revealed last September that it banned 600 China-based brands across 3,000 different seller accounts over a five-year stretch for knowingly and repeatedly violating its policies around significant review abuse.
But although Amazon’s internal teams work alongside Facebook to close the groups, the complaint indicates that new groups on the social media platform continue to appear.
“The nefarious business of brokering fake reviews remains an industrywide problem, and civil litigation is only one step,” Amazon said in a press release. “Permanently ridding fake reviews across retail, travel, and other sectors will require greater public-private partnership, including collaboration between the affected companies, social media sites, and law enforcement, all focused on a goal of greater consumer protection. Amazon remains eager to continue to partner with all the relevant stakeholders to achieve that mutual goal.”
It’s unclear who is running the Facebook groups, as Amazon didn’t name defendants in the complaint. It named “Jane Does d/b/a [doing business as] Facebook groups creators, admins, and moderators.”
Reviews are a delicate subject that can be costly for retailers when not handled correctly. Fashion Nova found itself facing a $4.2 million FTC fine for suppressing negative product reviews.
The FTC said in its review that from late 2015 through mid-November 2019, the e-commerce fashion seller would automatically post four- and five-star reviews to its website, “but did not approve or publish hundreds of thousands lower-starred, more negative reviews.” These reviews generated one, two or three stars out of the five-star system.