A seller on Amazon.com has been caught bribing its customers to post fake reviews.
In return for a positive review, the seller would purportedly give the customer a refund in the form of a 'rebate' for their purchase.
According to the New York Times, an online merchant named VIP Deals is said to have been offering a refund to its customers in exchange for a glowing review.
More specifically, the offer was in connection with the purchase of a leather case made for the Kindle Fire.
Looking at VIP Deals page on Amazon, the company appears to have a 97 percent positive lifetime feedback rate from 5,712 customers; the last 30 days shows a 95 percent positive rating with 2086 reviews.
One might question the surge of reviews, the bulk of which were positive.
It seems the company's offer was to refund the full price of the $10 paid for the (underpriced) product, presumably a good incentive for many to post a positive review. According to the NYT report, three customers told the paper the offer was "straightforward". When searching for a Kindle Fire case, customers searching found the price from VIP Deals was substantially discounted from the official list price of $59.99.
The customers said when they received the item from VIP Deals, the package included a letter inviting the purchaser to write a product review on Amazon. “In return for writing the review, we will refund your order so you will have received the product for free in exchange for a review,” it said. “We strive to earn 100 percent perfect ‘FIVE-STAR’ scores from you!”
This offer resulted in many comments, some examples posted today and yesterday include, "Love the case for the Kindle Fire. No "tire dept." smell!," "Item is good," "Excellent," "Great case!! Love it and the price was awesome."
NYT reported VIP Deals, which specializes in leather tablet cases and stun guns, denied the company was discreetly offering this deal.
“You are totally off base,” a representative named Monica wrote in an e-mail.
Amazon guidelines dictate merchants may not pay consumers for reviews, and it appears Amazon means business. Clicking on the page today, while the reviews are still visible, there is no information currently available for the VIP Deals storefront. Those who try to access the storefront's page from a link, the message "Your search did not match any products" is given as a search return.
The NYT reported the merchant's Amazon storefront was removed by the online retail giant. Seemingly the page for the stun gun has disappeared off Amazon.com as well.
PC World points out "what's more concerning" is the fact some VIP Deals customers were forthright in the deal, indicating that they've done this for other merchants as well, suggesting customer bribery is common practice.
For some time now online product reviews have been under scrutiny. The issue was highlighted again last year after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission brought to attention a marketing company posting positive reviews for its clients' products on various websites by posing as consumers who'd tried the product, giving them a direct financial stake and not disclosing this fact in their review.
“Advertising disguised as editorial is an old problem, but it’s now presenting itself in different ways,” said Mary K. Engle, the Federal Trade Commission’s associate director for advertising practices. “We’re very concerned.” (NYT report).
Bottom line, while customer reviews can be helpful, it's important for consumers to be aware that what is posted may not be the real deal, but a fabricated or solicited one. This is especially true as the web continues to become more social in nature.