Rajvardhan Oak stumbled upon an underground market for fake Amazon reviews by accident while scrolling through Facebook.
“I saw this ad that said I could get a robot vacuum cleaner for free in return for a five-star review,” says Oak, a PhD student at UC Davis. He figured it was a scam, but he clicked on the ad. Over the following days, he saw a flood of similar Facebook ads, all with the same proposition: Buy a product, write a positive review, get a full refund, and the product is yours to keep. So he tried it.
Oak wasn’t willing to drop $300 on a robot vacuum, so he waited for something cheaper, which turned out to be a $20 neck pillow. With Amazon Prime’s 30-day return guarantee, he wouldn’t be out the money if things didn’t work out. He bought it, wrote a five-star review on Amazon, and received a refund. A decent neck pillow for almost nothing.
Pay to Play
After that first review, the ads kept coming. The scale of the operation piqued his interest, so Oak set up a few sock puppet Facebook accounts and began joining groups offering free Amazon products for review. Some of these groups had thousands of members with agents from countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India working for sellers in China to secure reviews on Amazon in the US and Europe.
Reviews are important. Sales data is hard to come by, but higher ratings generally lead to higher sales, according to research from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which covered the 70 highest-selling categories and hundreds of thousands of individual products over a two-year time span. It’s not only about high ratings but also about visibility. Most folks won’t go beyond a page or two of search results, so if your product isn’t in there, you can forget about making a sale.
“A quick search today on any big search engine or many social media sites shows how easy it is to buy reviews and how much more platforms could do to protect consumers and honest businesses from this deceptive practice,” wrote Samuel Levine, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in a recent blog post.
The Facebook groups Oak discovered were marketplaces where reviews and ratings were bought and sold. Agents shared lists of products available for reviewers—one of the spreadsheets Oak saw had more than 10,000 products on it—and while most options are relatively cheap, there are pricier ticket items like robot vacuums and even a $500 treadmill.
Oak’s PhD research focuses on cybersecurity, reputation manipulation, trust, and safety. He also works as an applied scientist in the Network Protection and Fraud Prevention team for Microsoft Ads. He resolved to dig deeper. He devised a survey and convinced 38 agents and 36 reviewers to fill it out. The data revealed that people were writing an average of 10 reviews per month for products with a total value between $120 and $2,400. Agents earned $4 or $5 for each review they secured, with average monthly earnings of $150. (The top earner’s best month netted them $1,200.) For many agents, this was their primary job.