Facebook infiltrated by ‘fake review factories’, warns Which?
Facebook is still being infiltrated by fake review factories, despite the imminent publication of a new bill that will make this activity illegal and subject to potentially huge fines from the regulator, new Which? research has found.
The consumer watchdog’s latest snapshot investigation found more than a dozen groups trading fake glowing reviews in exchange for free products or payment. This is despite multiple previous interventions by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
Researchers uncovered 14 groups trading in reviews for Amazon, Google and Trustpilot, that shared more than 62,000 members between them.
Which? first uncovered groups on Facebook trading free products for positive Amazon reviews in 2018, and since then has consistently uncovered review trading groups on the social media giant’s platform. Which? estimates that the groups it has reported to Facebook have had at least 1.16 million members in total.
The government is soon expected to publish its Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill which will crack down on fake reviews. If it becomes law it will be illegal to pay someone to write a fake review or host a review without taking steps to check if it is real, and will hand the regulators powers to fine firms that flout the rules directly.
In its latest investigation, Which? identified six groups trading in Amazon reviews in exchange for free products.
It also found glaring gaps in the action taken by Facebook to crack down on Amazon review trading groups. For example, a search for ‘AMZ reviews’ now comes with a warning that the term is associated with fraudulent behaviour. But a search for ‘Amazon reviews’ – the term Which? used to find these groups – does not carry any warning.
One group, Amazon Reviewer – Test Products, had more than 15,000 members, and claimed to be a genuine group setting up testing of Amazon products. Researchers found posts clearly asking for five-star reviews in exchange for free products. The group disappeared during the course of the investigation, but had existed on Facebook for six years.
A Which? researcher contacted one of the members of another group, Amazon Top Reviews, and said they were interested in some of the products they had posted in the group. They told Which? that a refund would be given after a five-star review. The products offered for review included earbuds, a fitness watch, a solar-powered sprinkler, curtains and a weighted hula hoop (a popular item with influencers on Tiktok and Instagram).
Which? also found nearly 17,000 members across groups trading in Google reviews. A search for ‘Google reviews’ revealed groups trading openly in five-star reviews for businesses. One group that had been started in February 2023 had very quickly gained members – it already had 2,728 members, with 503 joining in a week. The group was very active, with more than 3,300 posts in a month.
While the number of groups (two out of 14), and members, trading in Trustpilot reviews was smaller than for Amazon and Google, their activities are equally brazen. The ‘Trustpilot review Support’ group was started in January, and has 149 members – 24 added in the week Which? was conducting this investigation. The group description reads ‘We are here to boost your businesses by placing 5 star positive review’ – a practice strictly against Trustpilot’s terms and conditions.
Another group – Google & Trustpilot reviews – was created in April 2022 and had 660 members. There had been 480 posts in a month, meaning it was an active group. Which? found members requesting and offering reviews for a variety of platforms, with several posting screenshots of reviews that they had apparently left on Google or Trustpilot. Which? also found UK businesses requesting reviews.
Says Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy:
“Despite previous interventions by the regulator, our latest findings suggest an industry dedicated to fake review trading continues to thrive on Facebook, leaving consumers exposed to misleading information on some of the world’s biggest review and shopping platforms.
“The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill – including strong enforcement and tough penalties for platforms that fail in their legal responsibilities – is sorely-needed to tackle fake reviews and ensure consumers have protections fit for the digital age.”
- In March and April 2023 Which? went undercover to find out if fake reviews trading groups still exist on Facebook, and which platforms they are targeting.
- Further information on the CMA’s investigation into Facebook hosting fake review trading: https://www.gov.uk/cma-cases/
Right of replies
“Fraudulent and deceptive activity is not allowed on our platforms, including offering or trading fake reviews. We’ve removed the groups shared with us for violating our policies. While no enforcement is perfect, we continue to invest in new technologies and methods to protect our users from this kind of content.” – a Meta spokesperson
An Amazon spokesperson said:
“Amazon receives millions of reviews every week globally, which are analysed by our skilled investigators and sophisticated industry-leading tools before publication.
“When we detect fake reviews, we remove them and take appropriate action against those responsible, including through litigation in the UK and abroad.
“Last year we shut down some of the largest fake review brokers and sued more than 10,000 Facebook group administrators. In the last few weeks we also launched fresh legal actions against more than 20 websites, some of which targeted our UK store.
“By taking this action against fraudsters, we are going after the source of the problem and shutting down these fake review businesses.”
“Our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences, and when we find policy violations, we take swift action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation. We catch the vast majority of policy-violating reviews before they’re ever seen, and as bad actors evolve their strategies we continue to moderate contributions with our newest models even after they’re posted.
“Our teams work around the clock and invest in the latest technology to keep contributed content on Google Maps reliable, and we are working collaboratively with other organisations and government agencies to find industry-wide solutions.”
“We closely monitor Facebook groups claiming to sell fake reviews on Trustpilot, and we take strong and robust action to combat the practice… Our Fraud & Investigations team actively trawls online data to identify leads for fake review sellers.
“Last year alone, we submitted 76 takedown requests to social media platforms – including Meta – to ask for the removal of groups, pages and accounts associated with review selling and other attempts to abuse our platform. Continued efforts by our Fraud & Investigations and Legal teams ensured 60 abusive accounts and posts were successfully taken down in the same year – and this work is ongoing. We welcome conversations with social media platforms on how we can work closer together to tackle this issue on an ongoing basis.”
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