Deceptive online sellers are offering free products in exchange for highly-rated reviews to dupe customers, consumer group Which? has found.
An investigation discovered evidence of Facebook groups – some with more than 80,000 members – which encouraged people to write positive feedback on Amazon products in return for free or discounted items.
Which? warned the practice was leading to shoppers effectively being “ripped off” by the reviews, which were frequently misleading.
Undercover researchers requested to join several of the “rewards for reviews” groups, and were instructed to order a specified item through Amazon before writing a review and sharing a link to it.
They were promised a refund for the cost of the item once the review was published.
In three out of five cases, the investigator was not refunded despite posting reviews – either because the reviews were not positive enough, or because the seller could no longer be contacted.
In one example the investigator gave the product – a smartwatch – a two-star review. They were told by the seller to rewrite it because the product was free, so it “is the default to give five-star evaluation”.
On another occasion, the researcher was not refunded for wireless bluetooth headphones after posting a three-star review with photos.
Alex Neill, Which? managing director of home products and services, warned these sellers were “misleading people into buying products that they might have otherwise avoided”, and urged people to “watch out for unscrupulous sellers”.
The group warned that online reviews were “hugely influential” in a customer’s decision to buy, with 97% of people surveyed by Which? saying they use customer reviews when researching a purchase.
Facebook told Which? that encouraging the trade of fake user reviews was not permitted on the social network.
It added: “We urge people to use our reporting tools to flag content they suspect may violate our standards so that we can take swift action.”
Amazon said it “does not permit reviews in exchange for compensation of any kind, including payment”.
“Customers and sellers must follow our review guidelines and those that don’t will be subject to action including potential termination of their account,” it added.