One morning in late January, Jake picked up the box on his desk, tore through the packing tape, unearthed the iPhone case inside, snapped a picture, and uploaded it to an Amazon review he’d been writing. The review included a sentence about the case’s sleek design and cool, clear volume buttons. He finished off the blurb with a glowing title (“The perfect case!!”) and rated the product a perfect five stars. Click. Submitted.
Jake never tried the case. He doesn’t even have an iPhone.
Jake then copied the link to his review and pasted it into an invite-only Slack channel for paid Amazon reviewers. A day later, he received a notification from PayPal, alerting him to a new credit in his account: a $10 refund for the phone case he’ll never use, along with $3 for his trouble — potentially more, if he can resell the iPhone case.
Jake is not his real name. He — along with the four other reviewers who spoke to BuzzFeed News for this story — wanted to remain anonymous for fear Amazon would ban their accounts. They are part of an extensive, invisible workforce fueling a review-fraud economy that persists in every corner of the largest marketplace on the internet. Drawn in by easy money and free stuff, they’ve seeded Amazon with fake five-star reviews of LED lights, dog bowls, clothing, and even health items like prenatal vitamins — all meant to convince you that this product is the best and bolster the sales of profiteers hoping to grab a piece of the Amazon Gold Rush. Meanwhile, sellers trying to play by the rules are struggling to stay afloat amid a sea of fraudulent reviews, and buyers are unwittingly purchasing inferior or downright faulty products. And Amazon is all but powerless to stop it.
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The systems that create fraudulent reviews are a complicated web of subreddits, invite-only Slack channels, private Discord servers, and closed Facebook groups, but the incentives are simple: Being a five-star product is crucial to selling inventory at scale in Amazon’s intensely competitive marketplace — so crucial that merchants are willing to pay thousands of people to review their products positively.
The best way to make it on Amazon is with positive reviews, and the best way to get positive reviews is to buy them.
Reviews are a buyer’s best chance to navigate this dizzyingly crowded market and a seller’s chance to stand out from the crowd. In a 2011 survey, 87% of consumers said a positive review confirmed their decision to purchase a product; online customer reviews are the second most trusted source of product information, behind recommendations from family and friends. But only 3% to 10% of customers leave reviews. The best way to make it on Amazon is with positive reviews, and the best way to get positive reviews is to buy them.
In October 2016, Amazon banned free items or steep discounts in exchange for reviews facilitated by third parties. But Tommy Noonan, CEO of ReviewMeta, a site that analyzes Amazon listings, said what he calls “unnatural reviews” — that is, reviews, that his algorithm indicates might be fake — have returned to the platform. In June 2017, Noonan noticed an uptick in unnatural reviews along with an increase in the average rating of products, and the rate of growth hasn’t slowed since.
Amazon’s ban didn’t stop sellers from recruiting reviewers. It only drove the practice underground. Reviewers are no longer simply incentivized with free stuff — they’re commissioned specifically for a five-star rating in exchange for cash. The bad reviews are harder to spot, too: They don’t contain any disclosures (because incentivized reviews are banned, and a disclosure would indicate that the review violates Amazon’s terms). Paid reviewers also typically pay for products with their own credit cards on their own Amazon accounts, with which they have spent at least $50, all to meet the criteria for a “verified purchase,” so their reviews are marked as such.
Amazon won’t reveal how many reviews — fraudulent or total — it has. But based on his analysis of Amazon data, Noonan estimates that Amazon hosts around 250 million reviews. Noonan’s website has collected 58.5 million of those reviews, and the ReviewMeta algorithm labeled 9.1%, or 5.3 million of the dataset’s reviews, as “unnatural.”
An Amazon spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the percentage of inauthentic reviews on the platform is “tiny,” but would not be more specific. In a statement, she wrote, “Amazon is investing heavily to detect and prevent inauthentic reviews. In addition to advance detection, we use a machine-learned algorithm that gives more weight to newer, more helpful reviews, apply strict criteria to qualify for the Amazon verified purchase badge and enforce a significant dollar amount requirement to participate.”
Internal investigators also examine reviews and “non-Amazon forums” used for purchasing reviews, the spokesperson said. Amazon says it blocks or suspends accounts belonging to any of the parties involved.
But conversations with sellers, customers, and reviewers reveal that review abuse continues, despite the company’s efforts.
An unnatural review doesn’t necessarily mean a product is inferior. But the problem with paid-for reviews is that they make it difficult for consumers — even savvy ones — to know if what they’re buying is actually good or bad.
In December, Kevin Votaw of Fort Collins, Colorado, ordered a highly rated Samsung Galaxy S8 screen protector for $10 using his girlfriend’s Amazon Prime account.
It was, he said, “terrible”: The material was so thick he couldn’t type, making the product completely unusable. Frustrated, Votaw asked Amazon for a refund for the unreturnable product, which has a sticky, adhesive backing and can’t be reused. “I went back to the listing, thinking, ‘Surely all of these reviews are wrong,’” he said. But the product was unavailable — “like the company was rolling these protectors out in batches, then taking them off Amazon.”
Amazon removed the screen protector listing after a BuzzFeed News inquiry, but two other listings with nearly identical product photography have more than 550 and 150 reviews each, all of which include a five-star rating and are unverified.
Type in “Amazon Review” into Facebook’s search box, and more than a hundred groups will pop up. Two of the more popular groups, Amazon Review Club and US — Amazon Review Club, which had 69,000 and 60,000 members, respectively, were recently shut down, but manymore groups remain, with tens of thousands of members apiece.
The groups’ posts read like the most random garage sale ever: lawn aerator shoes, lint removers, diaper pads, sex toys. New products are posted every minute. Most sellers are Chinese; in February, group members were warned that lunar holidays might slow down payments. Posts include a photo of the product up for grabs, with a description that says, “PP refund after review,” which means interested parties will receive a PayPal payment after proof they’ve published a review.
One product listed in the group, a posture corrector designed to train your back to sit upright, was offering an unusually large commission: a $30 Amazon gift card that included $20 for the product and an extra $10 for the reviewer, who needed to be an Amazon Prime member and write a review that contained images.
Meanwhile, the 36,629-member /r/slavelabour subreddit, which is dedicated to getting “jobs done well below market rate,” has a formalized process for posting opportunities for would-be Amazon reviewers.
Sellers post “tasks” that include leaving positive reviews on their products — or one-star reviews on competitors’ products. One listing read, “The reviews don’t need to be verified or anything, so the task won’t take more than a minute of your time. I will send you the link to the product, you go and leave a brief 1 star review, and that’s it. I will pay $5 to you through Paypal as soon as the review is live on Amazon.” Within a week, 27 users had placed “bids” on the task, expressing their interest.
The most active reviewers become headhunters, working to recruit /r/slavelabour users into private Discord servers or Slack channels dedicated solely to feeding the Amazon review ecosystem.
Sellers typically pay between $4 to $5 per review, plus a refund of the product. Moderators take a cut off the top — around 20% to 25% for the Discord server I gained access to, but reviewers get to keep the item for free.
On Jan. 13, the server’s moderator published a call for reviewers interested in “Before You Go To The Toilet Poop Spray,” a natural deodorizer carrying the “scent of Australia” by a company called Veil.
The poop spray’s listing shows a number of negative reviews, followed by a string of more positive reviews published after Jan. 13. Both positive and negative reviews are “verified purchases,” making it nearly impossible to differentiate between commissioned and genuine reviews. None of the reviews contain a disclosure that the product was received for free or that the review was paid for by the seller.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, Greg Doney, a Veil Fragrances representative, acknowledged the company had paid for reviews, “but you have to as its [sic] really hard to launch a product without them.”
When you take a closer look at the poop spray customers’ product review history, a pattern emerges. In addition to the poop spray, Amazon customers “Brian” and “Sharon” also gave a floating shelf bracket, which had been posted to the Discord server earlier, high marks.
Brian said the product was a “really sturdy shelf” (it’s a bracket, not a stand-alone shelf); and Sharon noted they’re “easy to mount” and “durable.” The critical reviews, meanwhile, warn customers “DO NOT BUY!” and “HUGE waste of money,” citing wall damage and poorly made brackets. (The shelf company did not respond to a request for comment sent to its Amazon seller profile from BuzzFeed News.)
The same accounts also reviewed “Boric Acid Suppositories” for vaginal health. The supplements are intended to be inserted into the vagina twice daily for two weeks, according to the product’s label. It purports to provide “vaginal health support” and “relief from odor, itchiness, pain, burning, and soreness.” The capsules were posted to the Discord server on Jan. 22 — and reviews from Brian and Sharon appeared shortly after that.
Brian commented that his girlfriend was “having pain during sex and it was not because of me,” and the supplements cured her. Sharon mentioned it was the “best and cheapest” option for female hygiene and health. Neither of the reviews were marked as verified purchases. A five-star review by D. Pham even says the boric acid “doesn’t taste bad” even though the pill is not taken orally. (D. Pham also gave the floating shelf bracket five stars.)
Meanwhile, a one-star review said that the product was a “nightmare,” citing how the pill “feels like a clump of cement mix in my vagina that is just gritty and totally dries it out.” Another said the suppository caused “an irritating burning sensation that lasted for hours.” The company did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Dr. Jenny Jaque, assistant professor of gynecology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, boric acid suppositories should only be used under certain circumstances, under the supervision of a health care provider. “Boric acid is not candy, and you need to be careful,” she said. “It can cause irritation: Your vagina will hurt; you’d feel pain like your vagina is on fire.” She added that “it is really toxic if ingested by accident.”
The Discord server recently posted turmeric curcumin vitamins, as well as myoinositol capsules, made by the same brand, listed in the prenatal vitamin category. The same reviewers — Sharon and D. Pham — gave the prenatal vitamins five stars. Both of their reviews were marked as verified purchases. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Amazon said it has applied stricter criteria for leaving verified purchase reviews. US reviewers must have a password-protected account and have made at least $50 in purchases on Amazon with a valid credit card.
During a hot summer in 2010, Jamie Whaley discovered a problem with her fitted sheets: They were breaking loose and ending up wrapped around her husband Jimmy’s ankles.
Whaley, then a 40-year-old nursing student in Texas, went in search of a solution. The suspenderlike designs on older sheet fasteners were too cumbersome, so Whaley developed her own, using a shock cord to make an easy button-enabled tightening mechanism. She called her new invention BedBand.
Jimmy Whaley convinced his wife to start selling BedBands on Amazon. The product worked, and people wanted to buy it: Over the next few years, BedBand became Amazon’s best-selling sheet fastener, with more $700,000 in annual sales.
Then, in October 2014, BedBand’s revenue was suddenly cut in half to about $350,000. Whaley, who had given up a nursing career, and Jim, who had also joined the company full time as COO, were devastated. “Someone was selling an exact replica of our product, and we couldn’t use our patent because it was pending,” said Whaley.
Counterfeits, sold in bulk on AliExpress, had flooded Amazon’s sheet fastener market, and many gained dozens of five-star reviews very quickly. Over the next eight months, sales tanked. “There were tears,” said Whaley. “We wondered whether it was time to look for different jobs.” She was forced to lay off eight contractors, half her staff at the time.
“It’s stressful, knowing that Amazon is our big store.”
Amazon took down the copycats once BedBand was granted a patent; it was a year after sales started dropping, but it was too late. The patent didn’t stop competitors from leaving negative one-star reviews on BedBand’s listings: “You start looking a bit deeper…and you can see they’ve left five-star reviews for our competitors. Or you’ll see that two different buyers have been reviewing the same type of products, our competitors’ products,” Whaley said.
BedBand is currently the best-selling fastener, but that may not be for long. “It’s stressful, knowing that Amazon is our big store,” she said. To diversify revenue income, Whaley started selling BedBands on Walmart.com, Jet.com, Sears.com, and other retailers.
Whaley was careful about how she discussed Amazon, which is her primary source of income —“I don’t want to mess where I nest,” she said — but seemed uneasy about being at the whim of Amazon’s algorithms: “Some days, all of a sudden we’re fifth. When you see a fast shift like that and [our competitors] end up with reviews all of a sudden, it’s frustrating. You just don’t know if tomorrow these competitors will knock our sales down.”
Paid review writing is the modern lemonade stand. According to the people who do it, it’s a quick, easy way to earn a few bucks and get free stuff — but not a career. And because the bidding, writing, and transaction happen online, it can all be done from a laptop in your bedroom.
Many reviewers who spoke to BuzzFeed News are men in their late teens or early twenties who viewed the activity as a hobby. All wished to remain anonymous, out of fear of being caught by Amazon, which typically results in revoked reviewing privileges or, in the most severe cases, being banned from reusing the same delivery address or payment method with a new account.
Josh, which is not his real name, is fairly new to reviewing; he discovered it through /r/slavelabour. He said he’s in it for the stuff: “You get to keep the product, so that’s a plus. It’s interesting to test out new and unique products in my opinion.”
The most industrious paid reviewers become moderators and begin facilitating review deals themselves. Frank, whose name has been changed, manages an Amazon review Slack channel in his spare time. The entrepreneurial 18-year-old scours Amazon for products that aren’t well-rated and offers the product’s seller his Slack channel’s review services. Listings with a small number of reviews and a low-star rating are ideal candidates. “If [a product listing] has 30 reviews with an average of 2.5 stars, it’s worth it and I’ll reach out,” he said.
Frank only earns about $20 from reviews a month, and sometimes a bit extra through seller negotiations. “I get about 30% for every review that one of our reviewers does,” he said. The bulk of Frank’s review income comes from reselling the items he reviews on eBay, where he makes “about a couple hundred” monthly.
Another reviewer, whom we’ll call Evan, is part of a private 10-person Slack channel and makes about $75 a month from reviews. He’s left more than 150 reviews for items like weighted workout vests, 30-day hair growth pills, and car phone chargers.
“It’s great for small investments and savings I’m working on,” he said. To write his commissioned reviews, Evan takes inspiration from existing reviews, “then I’ll cobble together a few keywords.”
One reviewer, Devan, who asked to be identified by his first name only, however, denies any wrongdoing and doesn’t mind being named. The college student swears he provides nothing but his honest opinion and thinks incentivized Amazon reviews aren’t a scam. He did not know incentivized reviews violated Amazon’s terms of service until BuzzFeed News told him.
He did admit he benefits from incentivized reviews (which he writes daily): He reuses the bubble wrap and other shipping materials from Amazon for his eBay business, through which he resells items bought on clearance.
But incentivized reviews on Amazon, he says, are just an evolution of marketing tactics that have been around for a long time. “At a sporting event, Mountain Dew will hand out soda for free, and if people like it they post on social media or whatever. It’s kind of the same thing, and like at Costco or Walmart, where you get free samples,” Devan said.
“Some of these sellers are mom and pop shops, and a lot of companies just want your honest feedback…I know a lot of people who [review] aren’t in it for the money. They’re just trying to find better products for people,” Devan said.
Devan’s right — there are “mom and pop shops” on Amazon, like Whaley’s BedBand business. But an increasing number of sellers are folks with little e-commerce experience or product expertise, looking to take advantage of Amazon’s millions of customers — and they need high ratings to supplant the existing best-seller.
Through the “Amazon FBA” or “Fulfillment by Amazon” program, anyone can open their own Amazon storefront. It’s easy: Buy products in bulk from an online wholesale supplier, like AliExpress, then send the inventory to one of Amazon’s warehouses, where Amazon will take care of all aspects of distribution, from payment to order fulfillment to shipping.
David, whose name has been changed, is an FBA seller who has considered buying five-star reviews. “It feels like the people making the most money are those who are violating Amazon’s terms of service,” he said.
David didn’t invent anything. He didn’t go to medical school. But he makes about $1,000 a month selling suture training pads for medical professionals on Amazon. “It’s a hobby, like video games. Plus, Warren Buffett said something like, ‘If you want to make money, you have to practice making money.’”
“It’s a hobby, like video games. Plus, Warren Buffett said something like, ‘If you want to make money, you have to practice making money.’”
David got started using a site called Jungle Scout. A subscription, which costs about $350 per year, provides metrics that show what products Amazon customers are buying a lot of — and features categories where the top seller has a poor or average star rating. That mediocre star rating indicates that there’s an opportunity in the market for another seller to poach some of that low-rated product’s customers. “What I found were suture pads, like a simulation skin for medical students. Then I went on Alibaba. All the Chinese suppliers are on there and they fulfill bulk orders.”
David — and other FBA sellers like him — swarmed the Amazon suture pad market. “The original guy, the guy whose product was featured on Jungle Scout, started losing a lot of sales because of all the competition,” he said. It became apparent, according to David, that the seller, Your Design Medical, was leaving one- and two-star reviews on competitors’ products. (Amazon said that, after an investigation, it did not find Your Design Medical guilty of reviews abuse. Your Design Medical did not respond to a request for comment sent to its customer support email address from BuzzFeed News.)
The only new seller performing well, in spite of the original seller’s bad reviews, was also, in David’s view, “cheating the system.” “The listing had 33 five-star reviews. There’s no way you can get 33 reviews in two months. That’s unusual for a product like this,” he said.
In the end, David didn’t end up buying reviews — but added that “if I really needed FBA for my income, I would have.”
Many compensated reviewers, and the sellers who hire them, don’t see themselves as bad actors. They’re just one of the thousands of other reviewers and sellers doing the exact same thing. Taking shortcuts, they say, is just leveling the playing field. Inside Amazon’s massive marketplace, there are lots of places to hide, to optimize, to cheat — and, because sellers can’t control the algorithms, they’ll do everything they can to sway them.
Amazon has tried to crack down on the review fraud on its platform. The company has sued more than 1,000 people for writing or selling fake reviews. In its 2015 suit against freelancers on the website Fiverr, Amazon said it “takes the credibility of its customer reviews seriously,” and also asserted, “While small in number, these reviews can significantly undermine the trust that consumers and the vast majority of sellers and manufacturers place in Amazon, which in turn tarnishes Amazon’s brand.”
In its seller marketplace guidelines, provided to BuzzFeed News by a third-party seller, Amazon says that sellers “may not offer compensation for a review, and you may not review your own products or your competitors’ products.” Sellers can “ask buyers to write a review in a neutral manner,” without asking specifically for positive reviews, or “ask reviewers to change or remove their reviews.” And yet all of these behaviors persist.
Sam Feldman started selling CardBuddy, a stick-on wallet for phones, on Amazon as a college student. CardBuddy was the first leather product of its kind on Amazon, but Feldman didn’t have a patent. Competitors quickly copied the product, its packaging, and even used CardBuddy’s photos. One seller had gained 500 reviews in two months. According to Feldman, the reviews were “clearly fake.”
“One day my sales were cut in half, and it was so upsetting,” Feldman told BuzzFeed News. “It stayed like that forever. More competition came, and maybe they had better photos or better titles…but I don’t know,” he said.
An Amazon spokesperson said, “We encourage rights owners who have product authenticity concerns to notify us; we investigate all claims thoroughly. We remove suspected counterfeit items as we become aware of them, and we permanently remove bad actors from selling on Amazon.” Feldman says that the company promptly took down the copycat listing and marked CardBuddy as the copyright holder of its own photos. But according to Feldman, it took a few months for Amazon to remove the hundreds of disingenuous reviews.
Feldman thinks Amazon could do more to tackle fraudulence on the platform: “From one side, Amazon started this business, and they’re inviting people in to sell on their website. Amazon is looking out for the system as a whole, and not for me, which I understand. But, at the same time, what do you do when someone’s making a living off of it?”
Shutting down disingenuous reviews is tricky for Amazon. By doing so, the company risks alienating sellers, a core part of its business. In 2017, more than half of units sold on Amazon globally were from third-party sellers, and more than 140,000 of what Amazon defines as “small and medium-sized businesses” surpassed $100,000 in sales. The company earns revenue not only from hosting product listings but from each sale made through the site, from fulfillment fees based on weight for each shipping order and use of storage real estate in its fulfillment centers. Revenue from seller services accounted for $23 billion in 2016.
Amazon is the place to be for e-commerce sellers and is increasingly seen as a utility. In 2017, Amazon accounted for nearly half of all e-commerce sales in the US (44%) with $196.8 billion in sales.
“Amazon really is— It is a great site, but as prevalent as fake reviews are over the internet, I don’t know how anybody can get in front of it. Cheaters are always going to cheat.”
Like entrepreneurs during the dot-com boom, people are rushing to sell on Amazon, and sites like AliExpress make it easy for anyone to acquire massive amounts of inventory. (AliExpress even runs its own fulfillment program.) This rush — which includes acquiring positive reviews to rise to the top of Amazon’s search algorithms to sell off that inventory as quickly as possible — can displace sellers, who are less in tune with the velocity and inhumanity of the platform’s algorithms and how punishing they can be as a result.
The company, through lawsuits, human moderators, and algorithms, is trying to keep fake reviews off the site, but the review mills that produce those disingenuous ratings may always be one step ahead of Amazon’s ability to moderate them.
Like Twitter, Facebook, and Google, Amazon set out to create a neutral platform and invited the internet to come and make something of it. But like Twitter, Facebook, and Google, Amazon allowed its platform to be big and comprehensive — and grow far beyond its control. But the difference between Amazon and, say, Twitter, is that its users’ livelihoods are dependent on the former.
Meanwhile, Amazon’s customers — left in the dark about the sophisticated mechanics behind the seemingly genuine reviews that guide their purchasing decisions — continue to buy products of shoddy quality that don’t meet their expectations.
Whaley paused for a while when asked what more Amazon could do to keep reviews off the platform. “The fake reviews and sales are so intertwined now. I don’t know how they can get rid of it. It seems hopeless. The reviews process was amazing when they started it, but it’s been so corrupted now,” she said.
With a heavy sigh, Whaley continued: “Amazon really is— It is a great site, but as prevalent as fake reviews are over the internet, I don’t know how anybody can get in front of it. Cheaters are always going to cheat.” ●
The story has been updated to clarify that there are 58.5 million reviews in ReviewMeta’s dataset, of which 9.1% (or 5.3 million) have been identified as “unnatural.” An earlier version of this story misstated the number of reviews in ReviewMeta’s dataset.
Nicole Nguyen covers products and personal technology for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.