Endorsements to deceive consumers are plentiful on the Internet. To mediate this problem, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) put hundreds of companies on notice in October 2021 that if they use fabricated endorsements to deceive consumers, they could face financial penalties up to $43,793 per violation.
In a related problem, some companies reportedly suppress negative consumer reviews from websites to mislead potential customers. In the FTC’s first case involving a company’s alleged efforts to conceal negative customer reviews, Fashion Nova, LCC, has been required to pay $4.2 million as part of a settlement. This announcement in January 2022 came after the FTC alleged the retailer blocked negative reviews of its products from being posted on its website. According to the FTC, Fashion Nova only allowed four-star and five-star reviews to be posted automatically and held lower rating reviews to be looked at before being posted to the site.The FTC said that over a four-year period, Fashion Nova didn’t approve or post “hundreds of thousands of lower-starred, more negative reviews.”
One form of endorsement is a fake review, which can be used to trick a consumer into purchasing a product. A fake review could be done by the company itself, by posting a fabricated positive review on its own site or by posting concocted negative reviews on a competitor’s site. Another type of fake review: When a company sends a product to a consumer at no charge and the consumer leaves a positive review with no mention of how they received the product. There may be an unwritten understanding that it was a quid pro quo.
Spotting fake reviews is difficult, but these seven tips can help you sort through the hundreds of reviews that can be found when shopping online:
Look at the dates of the reviews. If there are many reviews in a short period of time, it can be an indication the reviews are fake. A listing that has a diverse range of reviews from different periods of time can be more trustworthy.
Pay attention to the language of the review. A study done by Cornell University researchers looking at real and fake hotel reviews found that the real reviews used straightforward language.
Watch out for reviews that use similar language. If there are many reviews posted in a short period of time using similar language, that’s a good indication the reviews could be fake. In exchange for a free product, there could be an expectation for a consumer to use certain phrases when reviewing the product.
Check out the reviewer. If a reviewer has submitted only one review on one product, that can also be a sign of a fake review.
Beware of social media reviews. The FTC guidelines on disclosures require influencers to reveal they have a financial, employment, personal or family relationship with a brand when promoting their product. Popular social media influencers have come under scrutiny for not disclosing their relationship with a brand while telling their audience to purchase or use a product.
See whether the reviewer’s purchase was verified. Some online retailers will tell you. A review that shows it was from a verified purchaser is more trustworthy than a review involving a supposed purchase that has not been verified.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When leaving an honest review, most customers aren’t overly positive or negative. They could have a good experience, but still have criticism on one aspect. If it sounds like the best thing that’s ever been sold, there’s room to be skeptical.
By Hannah Rhodes, former Consumer Watchdog Associate