Amazon continues to have a problem with paid-for product reviews that tend to give customers an overly favorable impression of the goods they are buying.
It is a problem that hit Travis, a Northeastern teen looking for a trigger lock for his rifle. He ordered what seemed to be the best-reviewed piece on the marketplace site, only to discover that the lock could be forced open with the slightest amount of pressure. Travis told NPR that he is now sure he fell victim to fake product reviews.
The reason he is so sure?
He himself writes such reviews for pay.
"I don't think it's right that people can write fake reviews on products," Travis said. "But I need the money."
And Travis, NPR notes, is far from alone. He is one of a large shadow network of false review writers that congregate in places like Facebook, Slack and subreddits, a dark marketplace hovering about Amazon's legitimate market for products.
And though Amazon has spent years fighting the fakes, the problem remains. According to auditors like Fakespot and ReviewMeta, around half of the reviews for the most popular products on Amazon are of questionable origin.
Amazon does not agree with the estimate, claiming that it is much, much too high.
"Our approximation is that less than 1 percent of reviews are inauthentic," said Sharon Chiarella, vice president of community shopping at Amazon.
"We have built a lot of technology to assess whether or not we think a review is authentic," Chiarella noted. "The star rating, a lot of people think that's an average … it's actually much more intelligent. It's a weighted calculation that gives more weight to reviews we trust more and less to reviews we trust less."
And Amazon is very clearly serious about stopping the fake reviews, having sued over 1,000 sellers for buying reviews in the last three years alone. Those suits, according to Chiarella, give Amazon a chance to subpoena bad actors to get data from them.
"That allows us to identify more bad actors and spider out from there and train our algorithms," she said.
But fake reviews are big business – and not prone to disappearing just because Amazon is out to discover them. As Amazon gets better at spotting fakes, fakers get better at faking their reviews.
Travis noted that when he contracts with Amazon sellers, they often include detailed instructions on how to buy the product, how long to wait to review it and how to place those reviews. Once he's posted his review, the goods seller refunds his money, along with a commission for taking the trouble to write the review.
Renée DiResta, director of research at New Knowledge, noted that these persistent efforts mean Amazon is always going to be playing "whack-a-mole" with fake reviews that probably aren't going anywhere.
"Being on the first page of Amazon is profoundly impactful for businesses," DiResta said. "Doing well on Amazon really makes or breaks brands."
The most likely to pay for positive reviews, she noted, are Chinese brands selling on Alibaba who are looking for a more direct entry path into the U.S. market.
"If you order from Alibaba, it's going to take six to eight weeks to arrive; it's not a great experience," DiResta said. "If you buy on Amazon, it feels like a protected transaction."
Fake reviews are bad for Amazon's brand, of course. Amazon will keep cracking down despite the reviewers' best efforts at creatively evading them.