Five Star Fakes: Amazon targets social media brokers in attempt to crack down on fake online reviews

Lawsuit filed against more than 11,000 moderators of groups where online reviews were bought and sold
Amazon is suing the administrators of more than 11,000 Facebook Groups to combat fake online reviews. Reporter: Rachel DePompa, Photojournalist: Daniel Heffner
Published: Oct. 17, 2022 at 2:57 PM CDT
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InvestigateTV - Online reviews of products and services are bought and sold across the internet, but now Amazon, one of the world’s largest retailers, has filed a lawsuit aimed at halting that illegal activity.

Amazon’s lawsuit targets more than 11,000 Facebook group creators, administrators and moderators for bartering, buying and selling reviews, and the suit claims the fake review trade affected the trust Amazon’s customers have in products sold on its website.

One of the thousands of groups named is “Amazon Product Review,” a 43,000-member group where people solicited reviews for products like car stereos and camera tripods.

The lawsuit claimed that the group, and others like it, used tactics including intentional misspellings to avoid detection. Amazon’s filing also alleged that despite its efforts to permanently shut down the accounts operating the groups, administrators found ways to operate under different names.

Amazon mentions in its lawsuit filed in July  it found multiple participants of Facebook Group...
Amazon said in its lawsuit filed in July it found multiple participants of Facebook Group typing "R**fund Aftr R**view" to avoid Facebook's efforts to detect fake online reviews.(InvestigateTV)

InvestigateTV has been covering the problem of fake online reviews for months. Experts we spoke with told us the efforts to stop the illegal activity are proving futile.

“This is a classic problem that goes back to the early days of the internet,” said Jim Gibson, a law professor at the University of Richmond. “They call it ‘Whac-A-Mole’ problem. You sort of knock them down here, and they pop up again.”

“Do you need reviews?”

Amazon’s lawsuit comes after years of the company tracking fake online reviews. In 2020, Amazon said it intercepted more than 200 million suspected fake reviews through a combination of “machine learning models” and “teams of employees dedicated to keeping Amazon’s stores free of fake reviews.”

In May of 2022, InvestigateTV identified five Facebook groups dealing in fake Amazon reviews. At the time, we reached out to both Facebook and Amazon about the apparent illegal activity.

Following our inquiry, Facebook removed the five groups, two of which are now among the thousands named in Amazon’s lawsuit. Facebook also announced in a June press release that it was launching a new “Community Feedback Policy” that would ensure that reviews are coming from real buyers and not through fraudulent activity.

At the same time, InvestigateTV also reached out to the moderators of the groups we identified. One of the administrators responded, “I’m a reviews provider for any sites. Do you need reviews?” they said. The user, who according to their profile was based in Pakistan, also guaranteed “sticky reviews.”

InvestigateTV reached out to an administrator of a Facebook group it found bartering, selling,...
Facebook messages show the conversation between InvestigateTV and the administrator of a Facebook group buying, selling, and trading reviews. (InvestigateTV)

Amazon’s lawsuit said groups such as the ones InvestigateTV identified violated both Amazon and Facebook policies prohibiting deceptive endorsements to lure in customers.

In the filing, Amazon noted it works closely with Facebook to investigate and ultimately close groups that offer fake reviews. However, the lawsuit also said Amazon continues to find Facebook groups reappearing after being shut down for their fraudulent activity.

Public relations vs. Legal battle

Jim Gibson is an intellectual property lawyer and professor at the University of Richmond.

Gibson is currently writing a book about company reputations and the impact of fake reviews. He said Amazon’s lawsuit is breaking new ground in the company’s fight against fake online reviews.

“They’re not suing the sellers of the products who are paying for the reviews, and they’re not suing the people who are actually posting the fake reviews,” Gibson said. “They’re suing the moderators of the Facebook forums that connect those two together.”

He said a lawsuit such as Amazon’s is a way to inform the public about the illicit activities happening within these major companies.

InvestigateTV reached out to Amazon to learn more about its reason for targeting moderators as opposed to Facebook. The company responded in an email saying the lawsuit aimed to identify those operating fake review schemes in hopes of shutting them down.

Gibson said even though Facebook is not the target of the lawsuit, it could lead the social media giant to change.

“I think this lawsuit is probably more Amazon trying to put pressure on Facebook to do better,” Gibson said. “They don’t want to sue Facebook because once you sue Facebook, you’re in a complete adversarial situation.”

Gibson recommended not reading reviews to make final purchase decisions but suggested:

  • Look at the two-to-four-star reviews first.
  • If there are two products you can’t decide between, choose the higher-priced product (if you can afford it)
  • Rely on trusted, professional review sources
  • Always be skeptical – word-of-mouth is the best option

InvestigateTV reached out to Facebook concerning the lawsuit filed and if it plans to implement any policies to fight the recreation of these Facebook groups.

Facebook didn’t reply. A trial date is set for July 2023.

To read the full lawsuit from Amazon, see below: