Most people now rely on online reviews of products and services to help decide what to buy or where to buy it, and many companies rely on reviews to attract customers. People should be able to trust that these reviews reflect the honest opinions of actual customers. But several FTC cases, including a pending complaint against Roomster, show that some companies abuse that trust by posting fake or deceptive reviews. Such reviews are used to tout a company’s own products or slam those of an honest competitor.
It’s way too easy for companies to do that on their own or by hiring a shady breed of business in the business of posting phony reviews for pay. Just how brazen is the commercial traffic in phony reviews? Companies looking to buy fake five-star recommendations don’t have to look far because many of those post-for-pay review generators advertise openly on social media sites and show up in search results. Platforms that connect buyers and sellers and that feature reviews are well aware of this problem, as are the platforms on which reviews are bought and sold. Some of them do more than others to filter out suspicious reviews and to root out, label, suspend, or delist companies that use them. But a quick search today on any big search engine or many social media sites shows how easy it is to buy reviews and how much more platforms could do to protect consumers and honest businesses from this deceptive practice.
The FTC will continue to use the FTC Act’s prohibition on deceptive practices to sue companies and post-for-pay businesses that deceive consumers with phony reviews on company websites and on platforms. But platforms are in the best position to fix the review ecosystem – and they have the tools to do it. Among many other things, they can hire more people, improve detection technology, share information appropriately on bad actors and fraud patterns, be more transparent with the public, and provide more access to outside researchers. They can also consider modifying elements of their design and infrastructure that may be contributing to the problem or at least making it harder to solve. What many of these platforms seem to lack now is the will and incentive to take these measures. (A separate confounding factor: a federal law, the Communications Decency Act, makes it very difficult for law enforcement agencies like the FTC to hold online services accountable for the proliferation of bogus reviews prepared by others on their sites.)
To complement any proactive measures that platforms undertake in this area, platforms should also have easily accessible, effective, and meaningful ways for individuals and honest businesses to report suspicious reviews. Unfortunately, these reporting mechanisms can sometimes be hard to find or ineffective, and some platforms are unresponsive to such reports. Nonetheless it’s still a good idea for people to report specific problems – whether you suspect fake positive or fake negative reviews – because at least unresponsive platforms can’t later say they didn’t know about it.
To help people figure out how and where to report suspicious reviews on a given site, we’ve put together some current information for a few major platforms. If you’ve tried to report such problems to a platform and didn’t get a real answer, please let us know about it at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
The FTC also has two messages for companies. First, don’t gin up phony reviews on your own or through a post-for-pay operator. That deceptive conduct violates the FTC Act. Second, if your company has been falsely slammed by a competitor impersonating a customer or has been approached by a post-for-pay outfit, we want to hear about your experience at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
Improving the health of the online review ecosystem has long been important to the FTC. Beyond our continuing law enforcement actions, last year we issued a Notice of Penalty Offenses to hundreds of advertisers, letting them know that deceptive reviews and endorsements can lead to financial penalties. We’re also working on updating our Endorsement Guides to deal with the fake review problem. At www.ftc.gov/reviews, we have specific guidance on reviews for platforms, marketers, and influencers. We also have advice for consumers on how to use reviews and watch out for fakes.
The purpose of this blog and its comments section is to inform readers about Federal Trade Commission activity, and share information to help them avoid, report, and recover from fraud, scams, and bad business practices. Your thoughts, ideas, and concerns are welcome, and we encourage comments. But keep in mind, this is a moderated blog. We review all comments before they are posted, and we won’t post comments that don’t comply with our commenting policy. We expect commenters to treat each other and the blog writers with respect.
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