Financial Resource Center


Recognize Online Review Fraud

by Casey Mysliwy / January 12th, 2022

As a consumer, you have options—which can be good or bad news. It's great to have a variety of products and services to choose from, but it also can be tough to tell the real gems from the duds. So, if you're looking for a new TV, a great restaurant, or a dependable hotel, how do you find the right one?

Customer reviews on websites like AmazonYelp, and TripAdvisor are popular resources for researching products and services. While online reviews can provide authentic insight from other consumers, not all reviews are genuine. Some sneaky companies are willing to forge positive reviews—or negative reviews of competing companies—to lure consumers into buying their products or services. The practice is known as online review fraud, and it can be difficult to spot.

Paying for positive reviews

Some companies create fake reviews in-house, but many hire writers on work-for-hire websites using private Facebook groups or Craigslist. Review writers aren't paid much, but many churn out dozens. Writers then post their phony reviews alongside legitimate ones, leaving many readers none the wiser.

How to spot a sham review

By spotting specific language and other clues that fake-review writers typically use, you can pinpoint a phony. Use these suggestions to identify a fraudulent review:

  • Read beyond ratings. Many review sites use stars or letter grades to rate products and services. But relying on ratings alone can expose you to fraud. Read through the reviews to tell you how good a product is. If several users have the same complaint about a product, take that seriously.
  • Pay attention to language. Does a review sound more like a marketing pitch than a genuine opinion? Review shills often write in an overly elaborate style to "sell" a product.
    You also should be skeptical of any review that declares something "great," "awesome," or "the best" without telling you specific qualities of a product or service.
  • Look at a reviewer's history. It's not enough to read one review by one reviewer — read what else they've written about. A reviewer who only writes about one company or product category, or one who repeats the same language throughout multiple reviews, should trigger suspicion.
  • Don't believe extremes. Be wary of reviews that are completely positive and mention no downsides to a product or service. Real reviewers generally discuss pros and cons. Similarly, take overly negative reviews with a grain of salt. In some cases, companies hire shills to post negative reviews about competitors. Again, pay attention to language—if the negative claims are generic, skip that review.
    Also be on the lookout for reviews that repeat a product or service's full name, model number, and other specific identifying information multiple times. Shills often use this tactic to improve search-engine results.

What's being done

Review fraud can be sneaky, but there is good news. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) now considers review fraud a form of deceptive advertising, and has brought charges against companies on those grounds. It now sends a Notice of Penalty Offenses to companies using fake online reviews or other deceptive endorsements. Failure to stop using these deceptive practices can cost offenders over $40,000 per violation.

That won’t stop all fraudsters, but now that you know how to spot the fake from a genuine review, you are more equipped to choose the best products and services for you.

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