The halloween cat collar (three pack, adjustable strap, ghost pendant and bell) has conspicuously rave reviews on Amazon. “Three for $10 is a steal!” reads one. “They seem to be made of quality material and the clasps don’t break away as easily as some other ones.”
The review, like many on the e-commerce platform, is fake. It was written by Jason Wawiernia, a search engine optimization specialist in Michigan. After he left his glowing assessment of the product, Wawiernia received a refund through PayPal, in direct violation of Amazon’s policies governing ratings and reviews.
Amazon banned incentivized reviews in 2016, but it’s still a rampant problem on the platform. On September 4th, a Financial Times investigation revealed nine of the top 10 reviewers in the UK were engaged in suspicious activity, leaving scores of five-star reviews for unknown Chinese brands. “Many of the same items were seen by the FT in groups and forums offering free products or money in exchange for reviews,” the article read.
For third-party sellers, good ratings are critical for success on the platform, so it’s no surprise some companies are buying them. Today, Amazon controls between 38 to 42 percent of the e-commerce market, and over half the products sold on the platform come from third-party sellers. Incentivized reviews aren’t always a sign that a company is hawking cheap products. But they indicate the lengths sellers will go to try to stand out on the platform.
Amazon runs a sanctioned version of this exchange through its Vine program. There, the company chooses top reviewers to receive free products. It notes vendors “cannot influence, modify or edit the reviews.”
But this program isn’t big enough to help the vast majority of sellers. In recent years, vendors have turned to Facebook and WeChat groups to find people willing to write reviews. Sellers post photos of products, then ask people to message them, with the reassurance they’ll get a refund after leaving a positive review.
The exchange is designed to evade detection on Amazon. Once a reviewer buys the item, they send the seller a receipt, along with a photo of their review. The seller then sends a refund through PayPal. This ensures that the rating has a “verified purchase” tag on Amazon, cementing its supposed authenticity. Some sellers pay an additional fee, between $2 and $15, on top of the refund.
Facebook recently removed three of the larger US groups associated with these schemes, likely because they violated the company’s rules against fraud and deception. But more groups have sprung up in their place.
One, called “Amazon Review Group Only USA” had a member named Douglas Meeks, nearly identical to the name of the number four reviewer on Amazon, Douglas C. Meeks. Meeks has reviewed products on Amazon that appear similar to those listed in the Facebook groups, including a razor from a Chinese company which he rated five stars. He did not respond to a request for comment from The Verge.
The number one reviewer on Amazon, Sara, has a private profile, so her reviews cannot be easily searched. In September 2020, her profile picture was an image of two hands in the shape of a heart, backed by a glowing sunset. On Facebook, a member of an Amazon review group named Sarah Islam had a similar — though not identical — photo. Islam did not respond to a request for comment, and it’s unclear whether the two profiles are connected. After The Verge began reporting this story, Sara changed her profile photo on Amazon to an image that read “so tired of fake people.” She’s since changed it again to a photo of a unicorn.
The number two reviewer on the platform vanished shortly after The Verge began reporting this story. Their name was “the giving brook” and they’d left 4,641 reviews. The vast majority of their recent posts were for unknown Chinese brands.
It’s difficult to definitively determine which top reviewers are engaged in suspicious behavior, in part because so few use real names. I was able to contact the number five reviewer on the site, whose name is listed as Mickey. When I reached out on Facebook, identifying myself as a reporter, Mickey asked to see my products, seemingly mistaking me for a seller. It was a confusing interaction.
Zoe: Hey Mickey, I’m a reporter at The Verge working on a story about Amazon reviews. Would you be open to chatting?
Mickey: Hello dear
Mickey: Are you there?
Zoe: Hi I’m here!
Mickey: Show me your products
Wawiernia met the seller who reimbursed him for the cat collar post in a Facebook group with 45,000 members. The seller operated with professionalism, asking Wawiernia for his Amazon profile and walking him through the paid review process, where Wawiernia landed on the cat collar. “To be honest the quality is decent so far,” he tells The Verge.
That group has since been taken down, replaced by new forums with similar names. Facebook will continue to stamp out groups facilitating paid reviews, and Amazon will keep taking down reviews it deems suspicious. But between the web of Amazon, Facebook, and PayPal, they won’t go away anytime soon.
Reviews are meant to be an indicator of quality to consumers. But they also signal to algorithms whose products should rise to the top. Given how hard it is for sellers to compete on Amazon’s platform, it seems likely some will continue gaming the system. Amazon created the problem. Ultimately, the company needs to solve it, too.
In a statement emailed to The Verge, an Amazon spokesperson said, “We want Amazon customers to shop with confidence knowing that the reviews they read are authentic and relevant. We have clear policies for both reviewers and selling partners that prohibit abuse of our community features, and we suspend, ban, and take legal action against those who violate these policies.”
Facebook would not comment on the record for this story.