Shoppers who use the internet to research hotels, books, electronics and other purchases are being misled by millions of ‘fake’ reviews orchestrated by companies to trick potential customers, the consumer watchdog, Competition and Market Authority (CMA), warns as it begins an inquiry.
Many people use online review websites such as Amazon, Tripadvisor, Expedia and Checkatrade to find the best deals, but their impressions are distorted by the growth of a clandestine market for fake reviews, the Competition and Market Authority has discovered.
It found some companies were breaking the law by writing flattering posts about themselves to boost their rankings. Others were offering money, free product samples or other rewards to people who write positive reviews or give five-star ratings.
In some cases, rival firms were posting disparaging remarks on each other to cloud the judgment of potential customers. And some review websites were hiding negative reviews because they had commercial arrangements with the companies facing criticism.
The scale of the issue is unknown because fake reviews are difficult to spot, the CMA said. However, it expressed concern that abuse could be widespread. "Given the clandestine nature of the fake reviews, it would almost impossible to arrive at a credible figure," its report said.
An investigation will now commence and firms found to be acting illegally will be fined and their bosses may face prison. Consumer groups welcomed the move. Guy Anker, a director of consumer advice experts MoneySavingExpert.com, said: "It is utterly appalling that companies are engaging in practices where they are duping potential customers who just want an honest appraisal of their services."
One of the best-known specialist sites is Tripadvisor, which hosts hundreds of millions of reviews written by and for holidaymakers. Booking agents such as Expedia and retailers such as Amazon also provide reviews alongside their primary function of selling a product or service.
Many of these are free to use with revenues coming from advertising, paid-for links, payments or commissions from the companies listed or the provision of ‘reputation management’ services to these firms.
Some sites have developed systems to detect and verify fake reviews, but others had not, the CMA said. It warned that websites were in some cases selectively ordering reviews so that positive ones came to the front. Hiding negative reviews is against the law, it said.
The different commercial arrangements that might influence the reviews and the way they were obtained were not always clear to users. Customers were also trying to abuse the system by blackmailing companies by threatening to leave a negative review, noted CMA.