Army of fake reviewers being built to dupe buyers, drive online sales

SINGAPORE: As an online reviewer, Lynn is trusted to test and review products, such as those on Chinese shopping website Taobao.

And she gets paid a few hundred dollars for each positive review she posts, never mind that she does not try out some of the items but makes up her evaluations instead – with companies in on the flat-out fakery.

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She is part of an army of fake reviewers secretly hired by recruiting companies that manage the online reputations of businesses. “They send me the link to the product, then they’d ask me to give a good review,” she disclosed.

Lynn (not her real name), who is in her 30s, writes about three to four reviews a month, and knows some full-time fake reviewers who earn about S$1,600 a month.

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And this industry is booming. One recruiting company disclosed to the programme Talking Point that it has some 80,000 people from the region, including Singapore, on its payroll. (Watch the episode here.)

The prevalence of fake reviewers has risen in tandem with the boom in online shopping.

A 2016 report by Google and Temasek Holdings had projected that Singapore’s e-commerce market will grow more than five times to US$5.4 billion (S$7.3 billion) within a decade. And buyers are taking the fake bait.

UNDERGROUND ACTIVITY

A 2016 survey by business consultancy PwC showed that social media is exerting a stronger influence, on average, on online shopping behaviour in Singapore.

Some 57 per cent of respondents here used social media to read reviews, compared with 45 per cent globally.

And data analytics lecturer Koh Noi Sian from Nanyang Polytechnic, who has done research into user-generated online content, said positive reviews have been found to increase sales by 9 per cent.

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“Family members and friends have the most impact on their (consumers’) purchase decisions … followed by online reviews,” she said.

This is why some retailers engage online reputation companies to churn out reviews for their products and services. “It’s actually an underground activity, and then these reputation companies would also hire individuals secretly,” said Dr Koh.

In this activity called brushing – placing fake reviews – these individuals use fake accounts built on the real identities of people located overseas.

“Then they’d post positive reviews to help boost the review ratings of these products,” said Dr Koh, adding that fake reviews can contribute up to six billion yuan (S$1.26 billion) in sales, according to one study.

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Amazon claims that fake reviews make up fewer than 10 per cent of its reviews, but the distribution of positive reviews is about 80 per cent or more, noted Dr Koh, who called this “very skewed” and “very unusual”.

One recruiting company looking for writers to review products on Taobao told Talking Point that it was helping businesses to boost their sales through fake orders and positive reviews.

The recruiter, which was not named, explained why businesses resort to this practice.

“When customers shop online, they’d only browse the top few sellers listed on the search. With brushing, we’re able to boost our rankings so that we’re visible when customers do a search for products,” said the recruiter.

When asked if this was cheating, the recruiter said it was a “marketing strategy”.

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HOW TO TELL FAKE FROM REAL

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With fake reviews being churned out easily and on a large scale, how can one tell a bogus review from a legitimate one?

Mr Simon Yap, the web development director of Oasis Web Asia, a web development company, said some websites such as reviewmeta.com can help to analyse the online reviews in that regard.

What consumers can do is to copy the URL of the reviewed product and paste it on the website, which would run a report on the review.

“There’d be some percentage of suspicious reviews that would be removed by the analyser,” explained Mr Yap.

“Suspicious reviewers are normally reviewers who’ve created accounts just to review the particular product or brand … or there are a lot of repeated words to promote the product, which (the analysis) picked out as suspicious.”

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Such website analysers are not 100 per cent accurate, however, and do not work on all platforms, such as TripAdvisor, one of the largest travel sites in the world, with more than 630 million reviews.

TripAdvisor spokesperson Amolakh Calais said it does “red-flag any property that partakes in malicious activity”. And since 2015, it has shut out about 60 companies that had taken part in working with fake reviews.

Every review on TripAdvisor goes through a very vigorous vetting process. We have a set of tracing tools that map the how, the where, the what and the when of every single review.

“We have a very robust system which identifies certain trends in reviews," he added.

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So how else can consumers sieve out the fake reviews, without resorting to website analysers?

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“Consumers can look for more balanced reviews with pros and cons on the products,” said Dr Koh. “They can also go into other websites, search for the same products and read the reviews too, and have a more balanced view.”

Watch this episode of Talking Point here. New episodes every Thursday at 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.