Online customer reviews impact millions of dollars in online commerce and create an important communication pathway for consumers and businesses. Reviews help consumers learn about products, services, and company reputations, and inform companies about consumer experiences and satisfaction. However, bad actors also use fake reviews, or reviews that do not reflect a customer’s experience, to influence consumer behavior and hurt businesses’ reputations. Businesses and e-commerce platforms have taken steps to remove fraudulent reviews, but policymakers need to address the problem of fake review brokers, or those who facilitate the creation and posting of fake reviews.
Businesses are working to stop fake reviews, including using advanced machine-learning technology to analyze reviews for authenticity. But the problem persists across online businesses and is increasing because of the “fake review broker” industry. Fake review brokers, or those who procure and distribute fake reviews, can be individuals operating alone, product sellers, or companies posing as legitimate marketing services that engage consumers to write and submit reviews. Other fake review sites will use technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) to quickly write and populate fake reviews. Brokers using real people will often rely on large public chat groups, such as those on Facebook, to find reviewers willing to write reviews in exchange for free products or compensation, according to research from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Businesses targeted by fake reviews have taken action to address the problem themselves. For example, Amazon’s Counterfeit Crimes Unit prevented 200 million fake reviews from reaching consumers and took legal action against 94 bad actors so far in 2023. This included suing administrators of groups that procure fake reviews, including those operating outside of the United States.
However, stopping fake reviews and fake review brokers will require increased action from global policymakers, industry groups, and consumer advocates. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sought public comments in January 2023 on the issue of fake reviews, to understand the scope of the issue and the need for a potential rulemaking. Before commencing a rulemaking, there are immediate steps the FTC could take to protect consumers and businesses from fake reviews and fake review brokers.
First, the FTC should expand liability for deceptive reviews to fake review brokers in the revised Endorsement Guides. The FTC Endorsement Guides outline proper and improper uses under the FTC Act for endorsements, testimonials, and reviews in advertising. To address fake reviews, the FTC should directly name fake review brokers as an intermediary liable for their role in procuring and disseminating fraudulent reviews. Not only would naming fake review brokers demonstrate the Commission’s commitment to stopping fake reviews, but it would also provide the legal groundwork for the government to prosecute bad actors.
Next, the FTC should establish a new public-private partnership with stakeholders to facilitate data-sharing related to known bad actors. This partnership would increase overall transparency for fake reviews and fake review brokers, help stakeholders improve detection techniques and technology, and identify bad actors working across platforms. Improved data is especially important as more bad actors begin using advanced technology, such as generative AI, to create more convincing fraudulent reviews.
Finally, the FTC should partner with review websites, e-commerce sites, social media sites, and consumer brands to develop voluntary best practices to detect and prevent fake reviews. Best practices should reflect industry innovations, including the use of automated detection technology, and provide guidance on informing consumers and businesses about fake reviews, removing fraudulent reviews, and partnering with law enforcement or consumer protection agencies, if necessary.
Fake reviews can deceive consumers, hurt a business’s reputation, and negatively impact commerce. To protect both consumers and businesses, policymakers should commit to stopping fake reviews online by developing strong protections.