In today’s world, we are constantly bombarded with information about what we should be buying. We open Facebook and are presented with adverts for items that we were looking at elsewhere the day before. We are told by a barrage of reviews that a specific face cream will make us look younger, that a pair of running shoes will make us run faster, or that the phone we have our eye on is the best thing since the one we bought last year (when it’s almost identical).
Modern online advertising techniques, based on algorithms, are clever enough to spot patterns in consumer behaviour and predict what we should be looking at based on our prior internet browsing habits and the direction in which our enquiries have taken us before. Internet marketing is a multi-billion-pound industry, and much like any other, is tainted by fraudulent tricksters looking to increase sales of products whilst disregarding care for the consumer by misinforming them with false or paid-for reviews of their products or services.
There are various fraudulent reviewing practises which set an unrealistic and untrue picture of the products and services on offer and the resultant value-for-money potential for the consumer.
The most common practise employed is to pay someone to write reviews. There are people out there who make a living at writing and supplying fake reviews, very often doing so in bulk, under different aliases. Another common method of producing fake reviews is the more insidious method known as ‘brushing’, where suppliers use the details of someone who has purchased from them previously to send out unsolicited items to the person, so they can in turn, leave a self-written review in the consumers name. Very often, the unsuspecting consumer does not realise that this is a common practise. These are just two examples, but the problem is far-reaching and more common than acknowledged.
It has been estimated by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) that 23 billion pounds of UK consumer spending per year can be attributed to fake or misleading online reviews. These fake reviews have an impact on a consumer’s likelihood to purchase items that are not necessarily as described, and as such, are therefore misrepresented. The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act (2008) defines a trading practise as being misleading if it ‘causes or is likely to cause the consumer to take a transactional decision that he would otherwise not have taken’.
In 2016 the CMA published a review of their investigation into Total SEO and Marketing Ltd (Total SEO), who are a Search Engine Optimisation and Marketing company. Total SEO were co-operative with the CMA Consumer Law Investigation, and it was found that in the period 2014-2015, it had written over 800 fake positive reviews for 86 small businesses that were published across 26 websites. The outcome of this review had the CMA write to the clients who employed Total SEO to write the reviews, to warn them of how these fake reviews could be leading them to break the law due to the fact they were misinforming consumers. This investigation also prompted the CMA to write a number of ’60-second summaries’ outlining best and appropriate practise for businesses in relation to reviews and endorsements. It is not only regulatory bodies taking an interest in the impacts of fraudulent positive reviews, but academia are also looking at consumer patterns and the impact of reviews in the decision-making process.
An Indian study into fake reviews and the manner in which they influence consumers’ resultant decision to buy, indicate that this is not the entire picture and that most consumer decisions to buy are ultimately impacted by the recommendations of their peers and those within their own social sphere. The study analysed the language used in reviews online and the way in which consumers interpreted this and, in turn, the propensity of the customer to purchase the items. This indicated that many consumers are brand-loyal for most of the items that they purchase. The study indicated that the majority of consumer focus is placed upon the quality of service being received, as well as the method of delivery and response to any problems highlighted in the retail chain.
The impact of fake reviews is a cyclical one as studies suggest that a significant proportion of people are now reverting back to more traditional methods of shopping, favouring the high street, rather than purchasing items online through fear of being duped.
So how can consumers arm themselves when shopping online and reading the reviews?
At consumeradvice.scot, we have prepared our top tips for spotting and avoiding the fake reviews –
- Look at the language used in the reviews – If the review seems overly simple, or repetitive in tone throughout multiple reviews for the same product, then they are probably fake or ‘bulk written’ reviews.
- Research the reviewer – Many sites, such as Google and Amazon allow the username to be clicked to see other reviews left by the reviewer. If someone has purchased several similar items and reviewed them in a short space of time, then they may be a fake reviewer.
- If you’re not sure, don’t buy – Don’t jump into any decisions lightly. Make informed decisions about online purchases and do your homework!
- If it looks too good to be true, It probably is!
- Use VistalWorks tool in our knowledge centre: consumeradvice.scot/knowledge-centre/i-want-help-checking-goods-online/ – This free and easy-to-use tool allows you to shop online with greater peace of mind. Copy and paste the web address of the item into the tool and it will assess the potential risk of the item for purchase and whether it is legitimate or not.
If you would like more advice regarding online shopping or anything else related to consumer rights, you can contact consumeradvice.scot on 0808 164 6000. We are open 9am-5pm, Monday-Friday. You can also follow us on social media – Twitter: @advicedotscot and Facebook