Amazon Cracks Down on All Fake Reviews

flash fiction contest gavelI get it. It does feel like Amazon’s review policy makes our indie-author lives harder. This review is okay, but this one is not, so poof! Out it goes, with very little recourse. We work really hard for each and every one of our reviews. We need them all. Why is the Zon picking on us?

They’re not, of course. Fake reviews are a problem for any retailer that allows reviews of the products it sells – which is pretty much every e-retailer out there – and for every product imaginable, not just for books. Everybody who has a product for sale at Amazon is trying to get eyeballs on their product, and favorable reviews will push the product higher in the rankings.

So of course, there are websites out there where you can buy a guaranteed number of great reviews for your product. Last week, Amazon filed suit against the owners of four websites that claim to provide 4- and 5-star reviews for a fee. The sites in question: buyazonreviews.com, buyamazonreviews.com, bayreviews.net, and buyreviewsnow.com. Amazon’s complaint says the “Defendants’ businesses consist entirely of selling such reviews.”

The websites generally claim they will provide unbiased reviews from people who have tried the product – but apparently, that’s not the reality. Before filing the complaint, Amazon – or their lawyers – posed as a review purchaser and contacted Jay Gentile, the “CEO and Marketing Specialist” of buyazonreviews.com. Gentile not only promised to provide “as many five-star reviews as the purchaser wanted,” but to “slow-drip” them onto the product page so Amazon would have a tougher time figuring out that they were bogus. The review purchaser requested all 5-star reviews, except for one 4-star to make it look good – and that’s what they got. And according to the complaint, buyazonreviews.com has hit on an ingenious way to make its reviews look legit: Gentile told the review purchaser to ship empty boxes to the paid reviewers, so that the reviewers could claim “verified purchase” status without Amazon being any the wiser.

The complaint accuses these companies with violating the federal Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (because the website URLs are “confusingly similar” to Amazon’s) and Washington state’s consumer protection act. Also, because these buy-a-review sites were dumb enough to include Amazon’s logo on their sites, the Zon is suing them for false advertising and trademark infringement.

The issue for Amazon is credibility. One of the great things about buying online, from the consumer’s point of view, is that you can check out product reviews to make sure you’re not buying a pig in a poke. Fake reviews do a disservice to consumers and, by extension, to Amazon. If you buy a widget based on its glowing reviews and it turns out to be a piece of junk, you’re not just going to be mad at the manufacturer – you’re going to blame the retailer, too. In fact, some people might not even make the connection between lousy product and manufacturer. After all, they bought the widget from Amazon – isn’t it the Zon’s fault if it wasn’t as advertised?

Gentile has so far been mum about the lawsuit. But someone claiming to be the operator of buyamazonreviews.com talked to GeekWire.com about the suit, via chat on the company’s website. The poster identifies himself as Mark Collins and writes, “We inform [our customers] upfront that they have to provide some % price off promotional Codes So that Our People can buy your product at discounted rates…. They will only post honest reviews so those can be 1 star 2 star or 3 star as well.” (Erratic capitalization and punctuation are in the original.) However, the GeekWire article points out that the firm’s FAQ originally stated that the review purchaser could write their own reviews. After the GeekWire article was published, that offer was removed. Gee, I wonder why.

This is the first time Amazon has gone after purveyors of fake reviews in court, but I suspect it won’t be the last. I think we’ve all heard comments from friends or family members who say they take online reviews with a grain of salt. Obviously, it’s to the Zon’s benefit to stop this sort of thinking before its brand is forever tarnished.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

46 thoughts on “Amazon Cracks Down on All Fake Reviews”

  1. This is good – as far as it goes. These sites are frauds. On the other hand, I do think that they will have a hard time deciding which reviews from individuals are real and which are not. A case in point – they will not allow me to post a review of a Mr. Pish book because they falsely perceive it to be a fake due to my connection with K.S. Brooks.

    1. I know, Yvonne. It’s a fine line they’re walking, and leaving the bulk of the decision-making to a bot isn’t the best solution.

      However, I think there are two key takeaways from this: 1) It’s not just book reviews that are affected by these sock puppet scams — it’s every product out there; and 2) the scammers might think twice, now that Amazon has given notice that they’re prepared to sue. Or maybe not. After all, if you’re dumb enough to infringe on a major corporation’s trademark by featuring it on a website where you’re offering to game the system….

    2. Why should it matter if you have a connection with KSB? It’s the Mr Pish book you’re reviewing, not your friend, associate, colleague, or crony. I suppose it’s all a matter of trust and honesty and , since people are all too willing to ‘bend’ rules these days, these are sometimes difficult.

  2. On the whole I support Amazon doing this – though it does also irk me a bit how inconsistent they are. Buying fake reviews – OMG so bad! Horrible! Must stamp them out!

    Adding fake reviews to product that are “funny” when it’s clear the products were not purchased or used – “part of being a member of the community and all good.” I find these just as annoying and credibility destroying, but it’s all “fun” so it’s okay.

    So if the fake reviews weren’t paid for, and were just fake and funny, Amazon would be okay with it?

    1. That’s a good question, Anma, and I don’t have an answer for that.

      Personally, I often find those types of fake reviews entertaining — and they do bring eyeballs to the site, and maybe purchases, too. But everybody’s different. 🙂

  3. Now, the next step will be to go after those people buy books outside the genres they normally read, and then write a one-star review that says, “I don’t like SciFi but I accidentally bought ‘Star Trek Warp Drive Failure’ thinking it would be a romance so I quit reading it after the first ten pages, so one star for those bastards.”

  4. On one hand, it makes sense not to allow reviews from friends and family. However, for years, Amazon has recommended that Indie authors should use social networking as part of a concerted effort to promote their books. But, as part of social networking, loose cyber friendships develop between authors and other members of the publishing family. Most of us have hundreds of Facebook or Twitter friends whom we’ve never met. They are not “friends” in the truest sense of the word, yet if we post a review for a book of theirs that we’ve read, or vice versa, the Zon immediately takes it down, because (I imagine due to the cookies we must allow, in order to utilize the Zon’s website) “…it has come to our attention…” that their is a relationship between the reviewer and the author. If I remember correctly, at one time Amazon even sponsored a site that encouraged authors to solicit reviews from one another, and to tag one another’s books in an effort to move the books up in the rankings. So, it would seem to me that there is a bit of hypocrisy revealed to the discerning eye.
    I am besieged with requests for reviews, but now I am reluctant to provide them, and, in fact, have stopped completely for the time being.
    Another question that begs an honest answer: What exactly is an “editorial review?” Apparently, paid reviews by Kirkus and others are okay, but one that is solicited from another author is not? I don’t know about anyone else, but unless I can give a book an honest three-star review, I won’t even post a review. I never consciously fluff up a review, but neither do I assault an author’s work. There are plenty of ways to give a three-star review that lets the reader know what’s good about a book, as well as what its shortcomings are. A review is just one’s opinion: nothing more, nothing less.
    Okay, my soapbox is threatening to collapse, so I’ll sign off.

    1. LOL, Joe!

      Disclaimer: I post reviews of indie books at Amazon — as well as some trad-pubbed books, and occasionally other products, as well. As far as I know, the Zon hasn’t taken down any of my reviews yet. I have to wonder whether their bots go looking for people who have never reviewed anything but other indie titles, or authors who have reviewed each other’s books and (almost) nothing else.

      But if anybody reading this starts reviewing additional products at Amazon and *still* finds their reviews of friends’ books taken down, please don’t use me as an example when you complain to the Zon, okay? Because I have no more inside info on the way it works than anyone else does. 😀

  5. This has been a problem on Amazon for a long time, and I’m happy to hear that they’re getting more serious about it. As for book reviews, Amazon is not only going after the sock-puppets, they could come after you (if you’re involved):

    “We take the integrity of our reviews platform very seriously. If we determine that you have attempted to manipulate reviews or violated our guidelines in any other manner, we may immediately suspend or terminate your Amazon privileges, remove reviews, and delist related products. In addition, if we determine that an Amazon account has been used to engage in review manipulation, remittances and payments may be withheld or forfeited. Misconduct can also lead to legal action and civil and criminal penalties.”

    Here are a couple of examples of reviews that indie authors should pay close attention to (from Amazon):

    “A customer posts a review in exchange for $5 (targeting Fiver reviews).”
    “A family member of the product creator posts a five-star customer review to help boost sales (Don’t ask your mom for a book review).”
    “An artist posts a positive review on a peer’s album in exchange for receiving a positive review from them (review swaps are a no-no).”

    So be very careful who you approach for reviews.

    1. They’ve come after me without having any proof of anything – all my reviews are valid – I’ve sent out many a print book out to reviewers so the reviews don’t show as verified. About a year-and-a-half ago, they took down 40 reviews across all of my books. When I contacted them, they said I needed to check with the reviewers – but I don’t even know who some of them were, so how can I check? It’s a very gray situation, and sometimes people who don’t break the rules end up in the crosshairs.

      1. I remember that, Kat. I think Amazon got overzealous when they first started cracking down on sock-puppet reviews, and it sucks that they wouldn’t reinstate the real ones for you.

      1. I’m not sure what Amazon’s rules are for deciding there is a relationship between an author and reviewer, but I’m fairly certain the reviewer and author being Facebook friends isn’t enough. I’ve never had a review removed (yes, I have a way of knowing if that happens and, if so, what review it was) yet I’m FB friends with many authors. However, if two people they’ve identified as authors review each others books, especially if both reviews happen around the same time, would be easy to do automatically and I’d bet they would feel those are justified. This is one of the many reasons I don’t have an author central page and haven’t claimed the few books that have me listed as co-author. (Another of the many reasons is laziness. 🙂 )

  6. Lynne, keep us up to date on how the lawsuit unfolds. Next, I think the Zon should stop folks from buying an ebook, reading it and returning it within a few days. I have a feeling there are those who do this on a regular basis.

    1. That’s another annoying issue, Greta. I can see the Zon allowing returns to a limited degree, but maybe a week (which allows someone to read the whole book before returning it) is too long.

  7. I don’t know what percentage of the reviews on Amazon or other sites are fake but it’s high. The practice is nothing new and something even traditional publishing has engaged in. Years ago a very well known author published a historical book. My father in-law purchased this book based on reviews by the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and USA Today. The book was a complete sham and waste of ink. On Amazon the book had numerous positive reviews, if one dug deeper you could see the the reviewers in question either only had one review or thousands of reviews (which were also all positive). It was only weeks later that the negative reviews started showing up (people who had purchased the book) and it quickly snowballed into a tidal wave of bad reviews.

    I also have some experience with authors trading reviews and the difference between those reviews and independent reviews. In one case a book had over 60 positive reviews from other authors (they also received positive reviews in return). However one of the authors who had rated the book 5 stars and a masterpiece on Amazon, when anonymous rated the book 1 star and labeled it trash literature.

    On the plus side the fake reviews being generated by the smaller authors don’t seem to be helping sales any, nor harming readers. Rather it’s a waste of time on the part of authors, time better spent improving the content of their books.

    While fake reviews of any sort hurt the public trust, it’s the larger entities that hurt the public financially. Still the problem might be sorting itself. I’m a slow learner but it didn’t take to many terrible books from the Wall Street Journal for me to understand it’s just paid promotion. Friends and those sources we can trust are of even greater value that ever.

    1. Marc, one thing we all need to keep in mind about reviews is that they’re reader/customer opinions — some people may love a product while others hate it.

      And I agree with you that word of mouth is the best recommendation you can get. 🙂

  8. I think they should take it a step further and ban the authors and purveyors that have used these sites to garner reviews!

    1. Will, the lawsuit I’ve mentioned in my post doesn’t have anything to do with books. The sites being sued are offering to get fake reviews for other types of products on Amazon.

      And as Bruce mentioned above, Amazon most certainly can ban authors and other sellers for buying reviews.

  9. My guess is that people will continue to find ways to get the reviews they need, and Amazon will continue to look for ways to combat them that can be applied in blanket format, and indies will sometimes get caught in the middle.
    One solution, which will happen more and more as online buying progresses, is that consumers will get more knowledgable about reviews, and pick the ones to listen to more carefully. I know I read between the lines in reviews far more than I used to, and look for information about the product, not the reviewer’s likes and dislikes.

  10. My point exactly, Yvonne! A lot of consumers now believe that reviews are “bogus,” and the perception hurts us all–especially authors. If we pay for positive reviews, who are we trying to kid–readers or ourselves? I’d rather have 10 honest reviews than 100 bald-faced lies after my book title.

    The problem is, obtaining reviews is difficult. It often involves paying big bucks to advertise on coveted book sites, which may or may not accept your book. Without sales, no reviews. With few reviews, no sales. And there goes an author’s ranking on Amazon…

      1. LOL, no worries, Linda. I agree that it’s frustrating when some sites want tons of reviews before they’ll take your money to advertise your book (*cough*BookBub*cough*).

        1. I didn’t want to “name any names,” Lynne…but (clears her throat several times), that’s the other Zon I was referring to. Again, thanks for the informative post. I shared it everywhere.

  11. I think the sad truth is that becoming an author is a lot of work and staying one is even moreso. We work so hard to get published and then we are thrown into this system of trying to get noticed and told we need reviews that’s the best way to be found… but in reality, reviews help but I don’t truly believe they do a lot to increase or decrease sales. I also don’t believe that many authors really try to ‘cheat’ (i.e. buy reviews or trade reviews with other authors or get family members to post a review) the system or other authors but to try and figure out how to be found. Marketing for authors is truly often a foreign entity and hard to do. So I think authors follow what they see others do or think that others are doing. I think there is also a huge fear for authors, ‘what if others’ don’t like what I wrote’, so they try to get some people to honestly do reviews and of course some are biased. I wonder how often big businesses like Amazon give biased or less than honest reviews or information in regards to another company where there is some financial gain for them? I’m glad Amazon is going after sites like those that are doing fake reviews as it really just is another rip off to the author but Amazon does make it really difficult to play by the rules when they are constantly changing the game (as some noted above). There is so much gray area to wade through. 🙂
    I didn’t realize that I had climbed on a soap box but apparently I have 🙂 By the way anyone know where that saying (standing on a soap box) came from?
    Great article by the way. Thank you for sharing.

      1. Thank you Big Al. I wondered if it wasn’t something like that. The funny thing when I saw your link, was why didn’t I just google it. 🙂 I google everything but it didn’t even dawn on me to google that. Thank you for finding that answer for me. Have a great week.

  12. All I can say is – ‘About bleeping time!’ I was a reader long before I became a writer, and I still consume books by the dozen. Finding good ones has become harder not easier. Unfortunately, there is big money to be made from gaming the Amazon system and while that continues, so will fake reviews.

      1. Oh, and how I wish you would compile that list! I have my suspicions about several companies, and I’d like to see if my suspicions are confirmed. The word “disingenuous” comes to mind…

  13. You make a lot of good points, Maggie. The sad part is that authors have to “pay to play” in order to get noticed on Amazon. Many booksellers are making it to the top on the backs of indie authors, who feel they’ve no choice but to shell out the big bucks to get noticed. If an author advertises nonstop and offers books for FREE or .99, it will improve one’s ranking on Amazon. With luck, an author can pick up new fans and have crossover sales…at least for a short time. It’s a roller-coaster ride that never ends!

    1. When you say booksellers, do you mean websites like BookBub and others? They’re not technically selling the books (as I know you know) — they’re selling ads. And they don’t just make money from the authors who pay for the ads — they also make some cash from the affiliate sales when people click through to buy the books.

      Sometimes, I think the only people *not* making much money in this system are the authors themselves. 🙁

    2. Your right Linda. Indie authors are a great resource for Amazon because we work hard to drive traffic to their site with little or no gain. It’s time to learn how to play like the big guys do. 🙂 Not sure what that is… It’s one heck of a ride isn’t it?

  14. I know a few authors with street teams, and some of these authors have told me members of their “team” can no longer leave reviews. Apparently, AZ recognizes and frowns upon this kind of association. I don’t have a street team, but I thought I’d mention it, just in case other authors here do. If you do, has anyone experienced similar issues recently?

    1. Interesting. I’m just putting together a street team, but we communicate in a secret Facebook group. Not sure that even the Zon could penetrate that. 😉

      Melissa Pearl could maybe weigh in. She’s had a street team longer than I have.

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