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Five fake stars: Inside the black market of fake Amazon reviews

Nearly half of all headphones reviews and more than one-third of cell phone accessory reviews on Amazon are fake, according to ReviewMeta.com.

GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — Despite Amazon's ban on incentivized reviews, KARE-11 found a vast black market of sellers offering free products, and in some cases commission, in exchange for fake five-star reviews. 

Sellers use private Facebook groups like the 40,000-member "Amazon reviewer USA" to solicit potential reviewers with free product offers.

The page is loaded with no-name-brand electronics, power tools, toys, home goods, and beauty products all asking for reviews in exchange for refunds. 

Most posts have a similar message: "Need USA reviewer. Full refund after shipped. Pm (private message) me if interested."

I messaged three sellers asking them how the process works. 

They sent pictures of the products on Amazon including the keywords to help search for the correct products. 

"Do you reimburse for reviews?" I asked a seller named Ba DsHa from Xian, China.

"Yes, full refund after review," he replied.

When I asked what kind of review he wanted, he replied, "Five-star review dear."

I asked another seller, "Is this legal?"

She responded, "It's not against the law."

However, here in the U.S., it's not only a violation of Amazon rules, but it's against federal law to post a fraudulent review of a product or service in exchange for payment.

So, I purchased a pair of wireless earbud headphones, reusable grocery bags, and some tank tops, all with the promise of a refund upon review. However, we did not submit any reviews on these products. 

Big reviews mean big business

Amazon never allowed sellers to pay consumers for reviews, but prior to 2016, sellers were able to provide discounted or free products for honest reviews. 

After Amazon banned that practice, it appears to have pushed the market for incentivized reviews underground.  

"Reviews are very important," said Will Tjernlund, chief marketing officer at Goat Consulting in Minneapolis. 

He says in crowded categories like electronics, big reviews can mean big money.

"Look up an iPhone charger. There are maybe 30,000 different products to choose from. And so all you have to fall back on are reviews," said Tjernlund. 

And we certainly do. 

Half of all Americans under 50 years-old routinely check online product reviews, and 82 percent at least sometimes check reviews, according to Pew Research.

A study from Pattern consulting showed just a one-star increase in average rating can lead to a 26% increase in sales.

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How many reviews on Amazon are fake? 

Amazon has reported that less than one percent of reviews are fake, but the founder of the website ReviewMeta.com has it much higher.

"It's not every product, but some products have a big problem," said Tommy Noonan, founder of ReviewMeta.com. "About 7-11 percent of reviews on Amazon appear to be unnatural."

After seeing the prevalence of fake reviews in the sports supplement market, Noonan devised an algorithm to filter through available review metrics on Amazon and spot red flags.

His site gives consumers a report card on the quality of reviews for any given product and an adjusted score after discarding potential fakes.

Noonan's data suggests nearly half of all reviews in the headphones category are untrustworthy. He says 37 percent of all cell phone accessory reviews and 18 percent of pest control reviews have red flags.

He reviewed all the reviews for various categories over the course of one month last year and found almost 700,000 fake reviews for screen protectors and nearly 500,000 for earbuds.

Amazon says it wants customers to rely on product reviews, and the company is working to ensure reviews are accurate and authentic. 

"We use powerful machine learning tools and skilled investigators to analyze over 10 million review submissions weekly, aiming to stop abusive reviews before they are ever published," said an Amazon spokesperson in an emailed statement to KARE-11.


How to spot a product with fake reviews

Besides using a free review filter website like ReviewMeta.com, here are some other quick ways to analyze product reviews. 

Tjernlund suggests first clicking on all the one-star reviews of a product to see if there is a common complaint among several buyers.

He says if a dozen reviews over two years report a headphone battery dying in an hour, they may be on to something.

Also, look at the time frame in which reviews are left. 

"Make sure they are not all left in one chunk of time," said Tjernlund, as this would indicate highly improbable behavior for real reviews.

Lastly, he says click on the reviewer's profile and see what they've reviewed before. 

Have they only left reviews for one brand? Do they only leave 5-star reviews? Are their reviews specific or poorly worded? These can all be red flags in determining whether to trust a review.

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