If you're searching online for a hotel room, a small appliance or a gift for Valentine's Day, you'd be well-served to read a few customer reviews of the product from people who have already purchased it. In a pinch, I've cut to the quick by looking only at products with 4 1/2 stars or 5 stars.
But the quality of highly-rated products could be overblown by fake reviews, said Christine Frietchen, editor-in-chief of ConsumerSearch. Desperate online sellers try to differentiate their product from the competition by paying people to write effusive reviews. Some reviewers are paid to do so, but other sites give discounts or refunds to buyers who write a positive review.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, VIP Deals on Amazon advertised its leather case for a Kindle Fire for $10 plus shipping (list price of $60). But inside the package was a letter inviting the buyer to write a review. In exchange, the buyer would refund the price so the product would be free.
Until last month when Amazon removed the product from its site, the leather case had received 335 reviews with 310 of them five stars and nearly all others four stars, according to the Times.
So how can consumers recognize such a scam? Not easily. Only one reviewer hinted at the freebie, writing "I would have done 4 stars instead of 5 without the deal." Fortunately, Frietchen said that some fake reviews are easier to spot.
Here are her tips:
+Look for at least 20 reviews to get a representative sampling of any single product.
+Rearrange the order of the reviews. Generally they are in chronological order. Switch to read them in star order instead.
+Beware of over-the-top gushing about a product. Adjectives such as "perfect," wonderful" and "superb!!!!!!!!!!!" might make us feel good about a potential purchase, but Frietchen said normal people tend not to use words such as "superb" or a string of exclamation points. When was the last time that you loved a product unconditionally? A real review will mention a weakness or two. Better to read the middle-of-the-road reviews.
+Watch out for reviews that mention the full name of the product. A legitimate reviewer might write "I really liked this coffeemaker. It keeps the coffee hot and doesn't drip." A fake reviewer might write "The Cuisinart 2347 coffeemaker is the best product I've ever owned." The fake reviewer might repeat the full product name several times like a bad radio commercial.
+Tolerate misspellings but not poor grammar or syntax.. People type quickly, so misspellings are usually not a sign of a fake review, but putting a verb in the wrong place is a red flag. People from other countries who use English as a second language are often the ones being paid for their reviews.
+ Google a key phrase from a potentially fake review to see if it shows up on other sites. Fake reviews are often posted at multiple sites. Also, check a reviewer's other reviews. Frietchen discovered one reviewer who wrote five reviews, all for DeLonghi products. Turned out the person was a DeLonghi employee who worked in the marketing department.
Researchers say that the average person can only detect fake reviews about half the time. Anyone have other tips for rooting out the fakes? Anyone who had never considered that reviews might be fake?