Frugal Living Podcast: Fakespot Part I

Frugal Living Podcast: Fakespot Part I

In this episode of the Frugal Living podcast, host Jim Markus talks with Rob Gross, the COO of Fakespot, about fake reviews and how to spot them. You can listen to the Frugal Living Podcast on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on Anchor.fm, or anywhere you go to find podcasts.

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Brad’s Deals has a partnership with Fakespot to vet Amazon retailers. We check scores before partnering with Amazon sellers and check scores on deals before we post any. This is just another step we take to ensure you’re getting a quality product from a trustworthy seller. Find out more about Fakespot and read a transcript from this week’s episode below.

Table of Contents

  1. How Do Companies Get Away with Hosting Fake Reviews?
  2. How Do You Spot Fake Reviews?
  3. Read a Transcript from This Episode
  4. More about the Frugal Living Podcast

How Do Companies Get Away with Hosting Fake Reviews?

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The short answer is that fake reviews help these companies make money, and they have no incentive to get rid of them. When they are caught hosting fake reviews, they are given warnings rather than penalties, but often, they don’t even get the warnings. The platforms that these companies use to sell their products don’t have any inherent incentive to get rid of fake reviews either since they’re not liable for the false claims. Despite this, Amazon has been making an effort to fight fake reviews. However, it’s hard to stay ahead of the bad actors, even for a company as big as Amazon.

How Do You Spot Fake Reviews?

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Rob explains that there are some fake reviews that have obvious giveaways. These include:

  • Over-the-top, glowing language for the product or the seller.
  • Reviews that use the same or very similar language–this indicates that fake reviewers are all working from a script.
  • Reviews for the wrong product.

If you see these signs, then you should run because something is seriously wrong.

Rob also says to look out for what is known as syndicated reviews. These are reviews for the same product, but they are being pulled from other sites. This doesn’t necessarily mean the reviews are fake or that the product is counterfeit, but your experience buying a product on one site is not going to be the same as someone who has bought the product from another site.

He also explains that, as online shoppers, we’ve been conditioned to ignore the reviews, but even spending just a few minutes looking at them can save you money and headaches.

Read a Transcript from This Episode

Jim (00:00):
This is part one of a two-part interview with Rob Gross, the COO of Fakespot, a company that evaluates websites that sell products to you. And to me.

Jim (00:22):
This podcast is brought to you by Brad’s Deals, a team of real people dedicated to helping consumers. In this episode, we will talk to Rob gross, the COO of Fakespot. How do you trust what you read online? That’s the core of this, and it’s a fundamental part of being a frugal person. I’m Jim Markus.

Rob (00:52):
Hi, I’m Rob Gross. I’m the COO and Co-Founder of Fakespot.

Jim (00:56):
Some of the most popular websites online have fake reviews all over. Lots of products seem to have manipulated reviews, artificially high reviews, artifically low reviews. How is this so prevalent? How do companies get away with this?

Rob (01:00):
Yeah. Yeah. So that’s a great question. Great question to start off with. So there’s a couple of reasons why companies are able to get away with this. And the first one is the platforms let them get away with it. Right? So platforms, marketplaces like Amazon, Walmart, Sephora, Wish, the list goes on and on and on. There’s very few of these platforms that actually take fake reviews very seriously. And I believe in, and the company believes in Saoud does too, that the ones who get ahead of this and actually take fake reviews seriously, are going to reap the rewards from customers as consumers are slowly finding out. But now, you know, with the lockdown, they’re finding out even faster that a lot of these things that they’re seeing online are not true. And whether it’s the product itself, the product quality, whether it’s a counterfeit or whether they’re being, you know, those products are being pumped with fake reviews, consumers are waking up.

Rob (01:57):
So a lot of the platforms, they’re trying their best. I would say Amazon is making a big effort to try to eliminate fake reviews from their platform without actually publicizing it, because they don’t want the public to know that there’s that big of a problem, but there’s so much stuff going on in Amazon. It’s hard for them to keep up with all of the bad actors that are, that are, you know, pushing these fake reviews platforms like Walmart have a big problem. Walmart went out and they copied almost everything that Amazon has done. Um, whether it’s the shipping the two day shipping with Walmart plus, and then also bringing in opening up the third party marketplace that brings in a whole host of issues. So the platforms, I think, need to step up their enforcement of this and realize that fake reviews are just another form of basically false advertising, deceptive advertising, which you can’t do, right?

Rob (02:47):
If you, if you have any kind of false advertising, deceptive advertising, the FTC is going to step in and stop that. And then levy a hefty fine on you to get you to stop doing it, and also to send a message to everyone else. And that kind of gets to my second point is how did they get away with this? Well, the platforms themselves don’t have an incentive to remove fake reviews because reviews drive sales, even if those sales are based on lies. So they don’t see this as a big problem because they’re making money off of it, right? If you’re a third-party seller on Amazon, Amazon’s going to get a cut of your sales. They’re going to get fees for fulfillment by Amazon, and they’re going to get their, their monthly seller, their monthly seller fees, right? So all along the line, they’re making money off that transaction.

Rob (03:32):
The same thing with Walmart, the same thing is going on wish. And these reviews will drive sales. But the biggest thing that happens is there’s no law, right? Incentivizing them to actually address this. So Congress enacted section 230 under the Communications Decency Act a very long time ago in 1996. And the reason for doing that was to allow the internet to grow right. They wanted this new thing called the internet to grow so that new economies and new jobs could be created. And the whole idea behind that law was okay, we’re not going to, we’re not going to hold any content hoster or service provider liable for things that happen on their platform. Now, Jim flash forward to 2021, and this law still applies to a very mature industry and it’s not like the internet is still at home, right. And it’s still waiting to go to college.

Rob (04:26):
It actually has graduated from college. It’s had multiple jobs now, and now it’s an it. And now it’s an executive position controlling a lot of things in our life. So, yeah, so this, this, this law is still being used by everyone in big tech and even even smaller companies to absolve themselves of any liability for anything occurs on their platform. My personal opinion, and actually Fakespot’s position is that this is not what section 230 was actually intended to do. And surely a company, the size of Amazon or Walmart could easily put in enforcement mechanisms to stop bad things happening on their platform. But when bad things do happen, they hide behind this law every time. So there’s no incentive for these companies to actually go in there and try to get rid of fake reviews. And what this has led to is the FTC is the only one enforcing their guidelines against promotional reviews and their enforcement mechanisms are pretty much limited to when someone reports basically a whistleblower reports, a fake reviewer, and this happened with Sunday Riley over at Sephora, right?

Rob (05:34):
So Sunday Riley got in trouble with the FTC because an employee sent out basically emails from the CEO and founder saying, you guys need to go in this weekend and leave as many reviews as possible. Here’s your script. And if you don’t, and if you don’t do this, there’s going to be repercussions for you at work, obviously that did not sit well with some employees and someone leaked the email. And of course, then the FTC had to do something about it because it was blatantly obvious what was going on. You go through that case. And what ended up happening was that they just let Sunday Riley off with a warning. And if you look at the FTC opinion that the centers were saying something very important, they were saying, we should make this an example for everyone else of what you’re not supposed to do by coming down with heavy fines and really showing people that if you do do this and we find out about it, you’re going to be penalized.

Rob (06:25):
But instead, Sunday, Riley basically got away with this and that, that that’s, that’s really disheartening to a lot of people out there, especially consumers. The FTC is supposed to have our back to make sure we don’t get ripped off. And what they basically said with Sunday Riley was just, don’t do it again, right? What’s like, wait a second. That’s not a slap on the wrist is not good enough in this situation. I believe if you would have had a heavy monetary fine, I think everyone would have woke up and said, wait a second, “Maybe we shouldn’t be doing these things. Because if we get caught, we’re going to damage our brand. Our customers are going to know that we’re ripping them off in lying to them. And we’re going to get hit with a big fine, that might actually be detrimental to our operations.” So all these factors combined is how companies get away with fake reviews.

Jim (07:10):
How do you spot a fake review?

Rob (07:10):
So there’s. . . If you can break it down between two categories, ones that are obvious to spot and ones that are not easy to spot, if you can spot them at all the ones that are obvious the spot, we can clearly see them all left on the same day. One-word reviews say “good, great, best company.” Those are clear fake reviews, and you should run from that product because something very wrong is happening there. You’ll see things like reviews for a different product. We saw one during, um, during, um, on PVE. It was a, it was for an, uh, fake and 95 mask. And all the reviews were for the U S constitution.

Jim (07:47):
(laugther)

Rob (07:50):
The problem and those and those reviews are called there’s different names for them. They call them bait and switches. It’s called review hijacking. But what it is is basically just review fraud on a massive level. You’re using different products reviews for the current product. If you see a lot of promotional reviews that are properly identified, now that’s very hard to spot, but things that will be obvious that they’re promotional reviews. If they’re using what sounds like a very similar script, right? “This company is the greatest. I’ve always bought products from this company and this one’s a winner. And then the next one is this product is a winner. This company is the best. I will never buy products anyone from anyone, but this company.” Right? Right. You’ll see these, you’ll see these, these floods of these promotional reviews. And like, they all sound the same.

Rob (08:34):
Well it’s because their promotional reviews. They were given a script and they got the product for free. And they’re just now they’re, they’re flooding a new product with these promotional reviews. But sometimes those aren’t so easy to see, and that’s where Fakespot comes in. But with those three examples, the problem always comes down to this: We’ve been programmed not to look at the written reviews. We’ve been programmed to look at four to five stars. I see the price. I like it. And I buy it just taking one to two minutes to scroll down and look at these reviews will save you a lot of time and frustration and money. And you won’t be. What about the less obvious examples? These examples, these are, these are very tough. So one would definitely be promotional reviews that do not use the script companies that are smart and say, you just write on your own, right?

Rob (09:24):
They don’t give them a script. You, you just, you tell us something about the product, but make sure you give a glowing review, write four to five stars. Um, and what the incentive is here is if you don’t give that glowing review, you probably won’t receive any more free products. We rarely see promotional reviewers doing any more promotional reviews, if they’re actually honest. And if they leave one to three star reviews, one of the hardest ones to do are the fake verified reviews. And these are, this is the gift card scam. And you’ll see this all over Facebook and Twitter. You can just do a search for it. You can search for promotional products, free products from Amazon, and you’ll get these brokers who will send you product. We’ll say, look, I’m going to you go on, you buy the product. You show me proof that you bought it.

Rob (10:05):
You show me a screenshot of your, uh, or a link of your, of your, uh, verified review. And I will send you a gift card for $25. We know the product costs $20. You keep the five and they’ll do this over and over and over again. So those are the fake verified reviews. And those are very difficult to detect because pretty much it’s in the shadows. We talked about product switches that sometimes what will happen is it won’t be as obvious as the constitution example, what will happen is someone will do a product switch. And before they start promoting the product, they’ll front load it with fake reviews to push down the old reviews. So even if you scroll down, you’ll all you’ll see is the fake reviews for the current product. And you’ll have to go to page two or three to find the old reviews, which no one really does.

Rob (10:50):
So those are difficult to find, but then you have reviews from other sites, which I love the syndicated reviews. This happens a lot on Walmart, where their Walmart had a problem when they first launched their e-commerce site, that there wasn’t a lot of reviews. So what it is, they start taking in reviews from other sites and which are like, for example, um, pampers.com, well, pampers.com. The experience of a customer on pampers.com has nothing to do with the experience in walmart.com, because on walmart.com, you could be buying from Walmart’s inventory, or you could be buying from a third party seller. The shipping could stink. The packaging could stink. You could get, you know, there’s all kinds of issues that can happen. So reviews from other sites, syndicated reviews. If you see those, don’t rely on them, look on reviews, some from the platform itself. And then of course there is the new method of doing big reviews, which is AI generator reviews. These are very difficult to detect because they’re using advanced AI to make very complex, fake reviews that instead of using a script from a fake review, farm, and turning out hundreds of the same looking, you know, basically the same looking reviews, they’re using AI to generate realistic fake reviews that vary from review to review. That’s

Jim (12:02):
Incredible. I’ve never heard of this before. I mean, it makes sense, right? (Rob: Yep.) I had never considered it because I mean, how much of that do you think is a response specifically to Fakespot, right? Because you use machine learning to evaluate these: Which reviews look fake. How much of the AI generated reviews our response to that? Well, we’ll use machine learning, you know, to try to fool your algorithm.

Rob (12:24):
You know, for us at Fakespot, it’s been a big cat and mouse game ever since we launched the platform back in 2016. And it’s, it started off with, you know, like the very plain vanilla fake reviews. And this is why we always have to stay on top of this and be constantly researching and finding new methods of fraud. I don’t think it’s a response. I think it’s actually just a natural evolution with tech. So if you’ve seen anything in the news about, uh, open AI and how they have some very sophisticated AI that could generate fake news articles, fake comments, it’s just, it’s just, I, it’s not a response. It’s just the evolution of technology. And when there’s new technologies out there and, um, scammers can use them to make a quick buck, they’re going to use them. Yeah.

Jim (13:06):
That makes sense. This is probably a good transition point to why is Fakespot so good at what it does?

Rob (13:14):
So we’ve been, we’ve been doing this since, like I said before, we’ve been doing this since 2016, but when we built out this platform, we made sure to build it out with only state-of-the-art tech to ensure the highest degree of accuracy and constantly doing testing on our platform to keep that accuracy rate extremely high. But since 2016, the platform has actually just gotten better every year. We’ve gotten better at this. And that’s because of the talented people we have working at Fakespot, our engineers, our data science team, uh, it’s absolutely class. And what makes our product so good is our team is very passionate about solving this problem, solving the misinformation problem and the misinformation and problem within e-commerce. And we, we do this, we build out these systems by first having an extensive database of reviews and reviewer profiles. So we have over right now, 8 billion reviews and reviewer profiles in our database that we use to train our AI.

Rob (14:08):
No one even comes close to this level of data that we have to look for parents of fraud, whether they’re known or unknown or emerging, right? So this is, this gives us a very big advantage over anyone else in our space that actually wants to say that, yeah, they can spot reviews better than Fakespot. It’s just not possible. We are constantly updating and constantly back-testing those systems to ensure that we’re not missing anything and to ensure that we’re getting things right. And the way that we do this one way we do this is we are always monitoring fake review services for any new tricks that they’re using. So we go undercover. We find out what the new tricks are. We find out what the new scams are. And as soon as we find those out before they’re even out there in mass, we’ve already have it in our system. So we know exactly what to look for. We know exactly what they’re doing, how they’re, how they’re able to do these reviews, the steps they take to do them. So it’s very hard for the fake reviewed firms, you know, to keep up with us. We’re very proud of this. We like to, we like to think that we’re one step ahead of them at all times.

Jim (15:11):
Can we dive a little bit further into this? It sounds a little bit more like a detective agency than I realized, like you have this team who’s, who’s trying to spot these things while they’re still in their earliest forms. So you’re going undercover. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Rob (15:28):
Well, I don’t want to, I don’t want to get into too many details about it because then they’ll, these actors can realize who we are, but it’s basically, you just want to you there. . . these people are not hard to find. You will find them on. You don’t have to go to the dark web to find them they’re on Twitter, they’re on Facebook, they’re on Craigslist and you’ll see them advertising their services. So you basically just inquire about it and you will find out a lot of information if you just ask, because their whole thing at review farms is, they just need to keep on getting customers and keep on getting clients. There isn’t any lack of them. That’s for sure if 2020 did anything, it just, it accelerated all that e-commerce growth for probably the next three to four years into one year. So the more people that come online and start selling on Shopify or Amazon or Walmart, the more need for these people services, there are. So if you want to learn more about fake reviews, you can just ask a fake reviewer. It’s just that simple. It’s great. You know, these things are so out in the open and so obvious on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and they really don’t do anything to stop them. I mean, right now in Twitter, you could go on there and find tons of promotional review services and tons of fake review farms. I guess it’s just, it’s just not their priority right now. Sure.

Jim (16:43):
Yeah. That certainly makes sense. One of the things that’s most interesting to me about online marketing is brushing and these other types of, I mean, they’re, they’re fake reviews in really unique ways. And I think it’s interesting to talk about, can you tell me a little bit about what else is happening out there?

Rob (17:04):
Yeah, so, so, uh, brushing is, uh, brushing has been going on for a very long time and it, there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight. And brushing is a weird thing because what happens is you’ll be sitting at home one day and you just get an Amazon box and it’s a random product. And you’re like, I didn’t wear this. Like what, what, what is this? And then all of a sudden next day, you’ll get another one. And you’ll be like, okay, I actually liked this product. I didn’t order it. And you call up Amazon and say, what’s going on here? And they go, well, we don’t know you treat it or this because it got mailed to you. And so with brushing scams that everyone in your audience understands them is I have a product that I want to start selling on Amazon or Walmart, or just any other, any other e-commerce marketplace. And I need to get, I need to get verified reviews. So how do I get verified reviews without going through a fake review service or doing a gift card scam. But what I can do is I can create Amazon accounts and I could just look up people’s addresses in the phone book and their names. And I could just buy the product under that account and send the product to the person’s address. I randomly selected and they get a free product. And guess what? I get it. I get a fake verified review.

Jim (18:15):
(laughing) Written by a person I paid to market my stuff.

Rob (18:18):
Yeah. So I’m, I’m, I’m buying the product that I’m basically giving it to a random person for free in order to get them in an order to get the, uh, the fake verified review. Uh, it it’s, it’s crazy, but that’s what happened.

Jim (18:30):
What a, what a creative mind comes up with this workaround to getting a verified review.

Rob (18:35):
Well, what was really interesting, what’s really interesting about Jim is, is when you’re, when you’re in the situation where you’re the manufacturer of the product, let’s say it’s a very popular product, a drone, right? You’re selling a drone and the drone costs you a dollar to make, and you’re going to sell it on Amazon. You’re basically paying yourself back, right? So you’re going to get a fake verified review and the money’s just going to go, come right back to you. So it’s actually cheaper to do brushing than to hire a review farm, to do the, do the gift card scam.

Jim (19:08):
The only cost is whatever Amazon’s charging you to list the product, which you’re going to have to pay anyway. And I think it was only what, like 15% of the purchase price in most cases.

Rob (19:17):
In most cases, yes. In most cases. So they’ll, they’ll, I mean, if you really, really break it down, you really break it down even more. So the cost of that person’s marketing is the dollar to make the product, the dollar to make the product and Amazon’s fees and commissions, that’s it. So it’s, it’s a lot cheaper. So if you’re selling it for $20, it’s a lot cheaper than a $25 gift card.

Jim (19:38):
Man. Yeah, that’s true. I mean like, you’re like, like you said, to use the drone example, to have hard numbers here, a dollar to make the drone $10, you’re listing it at $10. So a $1.50 goes to Amazon, you’ve paid $2.50 Instead of $25. I mean, granted, you would have gotten some of that back, but still

Rob (19:55):
Yeah, yeah. You see, you saved, it would have cost you 10 times as much to do the same fake review. And then, and then, and then, you know, what some people get. So there was actually, uh, I think CNN, CNN had a piece on this that featured us a couple of weeks ago and some of the people’s reactions were funny. They were like, I actually liked some of this stuff. It’s just, it’s just, it just, it’s just what it is. It’s it feels really weird, right. You’re like, okay, wait a second, Amazon, wait a second. Walmart, why are people creating accounts in my name? And how did they get my address? And it really just comes down to that anyone’s address is available on Google or, you know, the good old yellow pages, I guess you would, would, would be the white pages, right? So, I mean, if you have a phone book or if you have Google, you can find anybody and their address and just send them stuff. So as long as I, I mean the problem with it though, is, is if you start sending people products that are defective or they’re dangerous, and they start using them, that’s where it gets. That’s where it gets bad,

Jim (21:02):
Special thanks to Rob Gross. H. Borkowski is our story editor and Sydney Smith helped with a bunch of these interviews. Also, thanks to Lauren Lee for setting up this conversation. If you like Frugal Living, please share it with a friend or leave us a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening. Frugal Living is brought to you by Brad’s Deals, a team of proud consumer advocates who scour the internet every day for the best prices on well, everything that’s BradsDeals.com.

More about the Frugal Living Podcast

To hear more from Rob about fake reviews and how Fakespot works to find them, check out the latest episode of Frugal Living.

Frugal Living is a podcast for smart consumers. How do you spend less and get more? The show, sponsored by Brad’s Deals, features interviews, stories, tips, and tricks. Jim Markus hosts season two, out now.