Amazon sues 1,000 fake reviewers. Can online retailers restore customer trust?

Retail giant Amazon is taking legal action against defendants it claims is posting false reviews on its website.

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
The Amazon logo is shown during a news conference in New York on Sept. 28, 2011. Amazon filed a suit against unnamed individuals whom the company said has been posting false online reviews on Amazon.com.

Internet users who post fake online reviews of Amazon products may be facing time in court.

The retail giant on Friday filed suit in Seattle against more than 1,000 unidentified defendants – whose real names the company has not yet learned – for tarnishing Amazon’s brand name with “false, misleading and inauthentic” reviews on its website. The action, which follows a similar lawsuit the retailer filed in April, is part of a broader response by companies against reviewers for hire, who post fraudulent consumer reviews for a price.

"While we cannot comment on active litigation, we can clarify that this lawsuit is ... against individuals who are providing these reviews and undermining customer trust on Amazon," the company told CNBC in a statement. “We continue to use a number of mechanisms to detect and remove the small fraction of reviews that violate our guidelines.”

The individuals in the suit, part of a network of firms and freelance forgers who create batches of positive reviews to order for as little as $5 each, reportedly offered their services on Fiverr.com, an online labor exchange, The Telegraph first reported. Amazon has said it is not targeting Fiverr, instead working with the company to help end the practice.

Amazon in April took legal action against reviewers-for-hire websites, accusing them of trademark infringement, false advertising, and violations of at least two US consumer protection laws. One of the sites, buyamazonereviews.com, promises, “Our skilled writers look at your product, look at your competitor’s products and then write state of the art reviews that will be sure to generate sales for you.”

In June, Amazon began using an artificial intelligence system to boost the weight of verified customer write-ups in an effort to undermine false reviews, The Guardian reported.

Other companies that rely on consumer reviews have taken steps as well. Travel website TripAdvisor claims to have “zero-tolerance for fake reviews,” warning would-be violators that phony reviews will be taken down immediately and that property in question would see a drop in the site’s rankings.

Yelp in February sued a company called Yelp Director, which claimed to be able to generate positive reviews from restaurant customers so that they would stick to Yelp’s front page and filter out any negative comments, Eater reported.

Some experts say such actions are necessary to try to maintain the industry’s integrity, but will likely have little real impact.

“I don’t think that you can prevent this, I think it’s in the environment,” said Robert Taraschi, chief executive officer of Washington, DC-based innovation group Milestone Ideas, to the Boston Herald. “I think it’s good that there’s a lawsuit, I think it’s good that people are keeping the herd in line. But unfortunately the herd in this case, I think, is moving much faster than the law.”

Still, the value of genuine reviews from actual customers remains critical, wrote Natalie Haynes, an English writer and broadcaster in an op-ed for The Independent.

“For word-of-mouth to work, the mouths have to belong to real people, not ventriloquists’ dummies,” she wrote. “Otherwise you just have words on an Amazon page that no one visits.”

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