Eric Bangeman

Amazon is researching the most prolific reviewers on its UK website after a Financial Times investigation found they benefited from posting thousands of five-star reviews.

Justin Fryer, the leading reviewer on Amazon.de, rated £ 15,000 worth of products in August alone, from smartphones to electric scooters to fitness equipment, granting his five-star approval on average every four hours.

Most of these products came from little-known Chinese brands that often offer to send reviewers' products free of charge in return for positive contributions. Mr Fryer then appears to have sold a lot of the goods on eBay and has made nearly £ 20,000 since June.

When contacted by the FT, Mr FT declined to post paid reviews before deleting his review history from the Amazon website. Mr Fryer said the eBay listings that described products as "unused" and "unopened" were duplicates.

At least two other top 10 Amazon UK reviewers have removed their story after Mr. Fryer. Another prominent reviewer outside of the top 10 removed his name and ratings and changed his profile picture to show the words "Please go away."

The FT's analysis revealed that nine of Amazon's top ten rating providers in the UK were exhibiting suspicious behavior and that a large number of five-star ratings were carried out exclusively for Chinese products from unknown brands and manufacturers. Many of the same articles were seen on groups and forums by the FT offering free products or money in exchange for reviews.

The Competition and Markets Authority, the UK's competition watchdog, launched its own investigation into online shops in May for “suspicious” and manipulated reviews, which it estimates bring UK online shopping spending at £ 23 billion each year influence.

"We will not hesitate to take further action if we find evidence that the stores are not doing what is required by law," said a CMA spokeswoman.

Amazon's longstanding problem with fake or tampered with reviews appears to have worsened as the coronavirus pandemic increased the number of people shopping on its website. An estimate by the online ratings analysis group Fakespot found the problem peaked in May when 58 percent of the products on Amazon.de were accompanied by what appeared to be fake reviews.

"The scale of this fraud is amazing," said Saoud Khalifah, managing director of Fakespot. "And Amazon UK has a much higher percentage of fake reviews than the other platforms."

Amazon said it took such scams seriously and used AI to spot bad actors and monitor reports from users. It said it would study the results of the FT.

"We want Amazon customers to shop with confidence and know that the reviews they read are authentic and relevant," the company said, adding that anyone who violates its policies will be suspended, banned and sued.

Justin Fryer's Amazon review and an eBay listing for an identical item sold from his account the day before. "Src =" https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/fake-review.jpg "width =" 700 "height =" 748

Justin Fryer's Amazon review and an eBay listing for an identical item sold from his account the day before.

However, Amazon has been aware of the activity on Mr. Fryer's account since at least early August when a user of the site emailed CEO Jeff Bezos directly after his complaints were ignored.

"Jeff Bezos received your email," an Amazon employee later replied, promising to investigate Mr. Fryer and the other high profile accounts. A number of highlighted ratings were subsequently removed – but no broader action appears to have been taken.

As of February, Mr. Fryer's reviews featured three pavilions, more than a dozen vacuum cleaners and 10 laptops, and everything from dollhouses to selfie lights to a grease removal machine from brands based in China.

His posts usually included a video of the product being taken out of the box but handled with care, with comments mostly on the external features and the quality of the packaging in which it was delivered. Many of the same products were then listed as "unopened" and "unused" on an eBay account registered under the name and address of Mr. Fryer.

For example, on Aug 13, Mr Fryer sold an electric scooter for £ 485.99 seven days before posting a review of the same product on Amazon. He described it as “hands down my favorite toy,” which he liked, “so much that we bought a second for my fiancée. "

When contacted this week, Mr Fryer said the items on his eBay listings were duplicates and the allegation that he received free products in return for positive reviews was "false". He said he paid for the "vast majority" of the goods but couldn't tell how much he "turned" on.

“I have relationships with and I know some of the salespeople,” he said. "My partner's Chinese and I know a lot of businesses there … and I'm just checking."

Unlike bloggers and influencers who can accept and post free products with proper disclosure, Amazon's Community Guidelines specifically prohibit creating, modifying, or posting content in exchange for compensation of any kind (including free or discounted products) or on behalf another. ”

The exception is the company's "Vine" rating program, where top reviewers receive free products that do not depend on a positive rating.

Amazon market observers say the website's algorithms provide a great incentive to pay for positive reviews, even if it means handing out expensive products.

In addition to price and delivery time, ratings are a decisive factor in bringing the product up in the Amazon ranking and receiving algorithmically calculated comments, for example the influential “Amazon's Choice” badge.

"You are more than twice as likely to choose an inferior product online than the best online if there are false reviews of those inferior products," said Neena Bhati, campaign director for consumer group Which? The organization has campaigned heavily for stricter reviews of online reviews.

© 2020 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. No redistribution, reproduction or modification in any way.

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