The Fraud Examiner

Who Says You Can’t Buy Credibility?

Stopping Fraud from Ruining Customer Reviews for Everyone 


December 2012 

By Jacob Parks, J.D., CFE 


We expect advertising to be biased. The product’s strengths and appeal are promoted and perhaps compared to the weaknesses of competitors. Customer reviews, by contrast, are designed to be a tool for prospective purchasers to get a more objective opinion on whether a product or service is worth what the seller says it is. One common feature that has made premier online stores like Amazon and eBay so successful is how they promote customer reviews for items and sellers. The increasing convenience of obtaining customer reviews for almost any product or service — from dining room sets to legal services — has made such reviews one of the most important devices in marketing.


The end result should be that we, as consumers, are making purchases of products that have proven effective, as opposed to those that have merely been advertised effectively.


What Is Actually Happening 

Unfortunately, customer reviews might not be as reliable as once thought. There is mounting evidence that a substantial portion of customer reviews are not real, and instead are created by someone with an undisclosed relationship to the seller or the product. More and more companies that offer or display customer/product reviews are finding that fake reviews are endemic on their online systems. According to a New York Times article (“The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy” by David Streitfeld), Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois, Chicago, estimated that around one-third of all customer reviews on the Internet are fake. When considering that many customer reviews are aggregated to summarize a product or seller (e.g., “9 out of 10 stars based on 140 reviews”), a one-third margin of phony fluff largely defeats the purpose.


The most common deceptive strategy of this type is simple: make fake positive reviews of your product to convince real buyers to purchase it. The fake reviews might be created by the seller, a third party the seller hires to create them, or someone else with an ulterior motive in a particular market. 

It is not just fake positive reviews that are out there, either. Phony negative reviews can be even more harmful to the reliability of evaluating products through customer reviews.


“My steak was overcooked.”


“The customer support staff was not helpful at all.”


“The signal reception was horrible.”

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