ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Let's consider for a few moments the Amazon catfish. This is not a Brazilian river creature. Cat-fishing is a kind of Internet scam. In this case, we're talking about cat-fishing by self-published authors on Amazon's Kindle e-reader. Yes, it's time for All Tech Considered.
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SHAPIRO: Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post has investigated Amazon cat-fishing, and she joins us now in the studio. Welcome to the show.
CAITLIN DEWEY: Hey. Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: How does the scam work?
DEWEY: Well, it is very complicated, which is probably why it's gone undetected for so long. Basically, what happens is that someone contracts an e-book from a low-paid writer overseas. They publish it on Amazon under a fake name and a fictional biography. And then, to sort of wrap things up, they buy fake reviews to make it look like their book is really popular, and then they sell it to a lot of unsuspecting customers who are often unhappy by what they receive.
SHAPIRO: And there have actually been Kindle bestsellers that are written under a pseudonym, highly reviewed by paid fake reviewers. It's all bogus.
DEWEY: Absolutely, yeah. They're - I mean, it's difficult to tell exactly how many books have been published under this method, but certainly hundreds of them, often about very important topics like health or mental illness or weight loss, sort of topics of that nature that, you know, people might seek in e-book for. And by all accounts, it is a multimillion-dollar industry.
SHAPIRO: Is there anything illegal about publishing a poorly written book by a ghost writer under a pseudonym?
DEWEY: So obviously using a pseudonym is not illegal. The problem is, is that in a lot of cases, these people are inventing a fictional persona with expertise that they don't actually have.
SHAPIRO: Oh, so they say, here's a doctor writing a book about weight loss, and they're not actually a doctor.
DEWEY: Exactly. And then on top of that, they're buying these fake reviews, which is explicitly against Amazon's terms of service. Amazon, of course, just filed a bunch of lawsuits against people for buying fake reviews, so they might be coming up against some legal repercussions that way.
SHAPIRO: But as you write in your column, Amazon makes a lot of money off of these terrible bestsellers.
DEWEY: They do. So the way that the e-book self-publishing marketplace works is that Amazon actually gets 65 percent of every sale. So for every dollar that the publisher of the book makes, Amazon is making $1.86.
SHAPIRO: People buy these books for $5 or $10. Once they find out they're terrible, why wouldn't they go online and give a one-star review to counterbalance all of the fake five-star reviews?
DEWEY: So there's two things going on here. One is that people just don't leave reviews, right? So taking the time to actually sign in and review it - I mean, most people aren't going to go through the trouble. On top of that, what these catfish will do, is that they'll go through and report bad reviews as spam or as abuse so that weakens them in the Amazon algorithm and they won't show up as high in the score.
SHAPIRO: In your column, you did some deep digging and located one of these cat-fishers and also somebody who was really writing genuine books on the same subject who felt like the cat-fishers were undermining him. Can you tell us about one of the most interesting people you met in this research?
DEWEY: He was fascinating. This gentleman's name is Alexis Pablo Marrocco. He is a law student in Argentina, and he has basically this small empire of fake Amazon authors who are all named for Ayn Rand characters.
SHAPIRO: Characters from the novelist Ayn Rand's books.
DEWEY: Yes, exactly. He had invented this wildly popular author who, according to him, spoke 15 languages, including, like, Latin and Chinese. And she was publishing something like a book every four or five days. And you know, when I finally contacted him, which took quite a lot of digging, he was extremely insistent that, you know, this was just a pen name. He sent me a list of, I think, 20 authors who had used pennames before, you know, very well-known authors, including J.K. Rowling. He strongly feels he's just an entrepreneur.
SHAPIRO: What advice do you have for Kindle readers to avoid paying $5 or $10 for one of these terrible books?
DEWEY: Well, unfortunately, the bottom line is you can't necessarily trust the reviews, right? So you have to be very critical when you're reading reviews of books. It's also just as easy as doing a quick Google search. Just Google the author's name, and if nothing comes up, you know, maybe you should be a little suspicious of their expertise.
SHAPIRO: Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post. Thanks, Caitlin.
DEWEY: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: At the root of this scam is a problem that almost every online reviewing site has to deal with - fake reviews. Some businesses pay people to write fake online reviews, or they'll just encourage friends and family to write glowing ones. This is called astroturfing. Georgios Zervas of Boston University has studied the issue, and he joins us now. Welcome to the show.
GEORGIOS ZERVAS: Hi, Ari. Nice to join you.
SHAPIRO: How common are fake reviews? I understand you found that 25 percent of reviews on Yelp get removed. Does that mean a quarter of the reviews on Yelp are fake?
ZERVAS: Absolutely not. It's very hard to know whether a review is fake or not because we're not there looking behind the reviewer's shoulder to see whether their opinion is honest or dishonest and possibly incentivized. Nevertheless, considering the fact that Yelp would rather publish a review than throw it away, 25 percent might be a reasonable proxy.
SHAPIRO: Your study specifically looked at Boston restaurant reviews. What did you find?
ZERVAS: So we looked at various things, but essentially, our study focused on understanding the market condition under which fake reviews are most prevalent. And one of the things that we found is that positive fake reviews that are written by businesses to boost their own reputation are more likely to occur in settings where the business's reputation is suffering.
ZERVAS: So if you have recently received a string of negative reviews or maybe you have no reputation online, very few reviews, then you're more encouraged to solicit those reviews that you talk of from friends, family or even the reviewers that are paid.
SHAPIRO: You've talked about positive fake reviews. What about negative fake reviews? How common are they?
ZERVAS: So negative fake reviews are probably less common. By writing a negative fake review, you can only damage the reputation of one competitor, and you might have many of them.
SHAPIRO: So if you're one restaurant on a crowded street, it takes a lot less effort to write one good review of your restaurant than 25 bad reviews of all the other ones on the crowded street.
ZERVAS: Exactly. That's the intuition. And also, you run a lower risk of being uncovered, I suppose.
SHAPIRO: OK, so news you can use. If I'm on the Internet trying to find a good place to eat, how can I suss out the places that only have good reviews because somebody's astroturfing?
ZERVAS: Typically, those places tend to have few reviews from users that are not very reputable on Yelp. So if you happen to see a restaurant that has a number of glowing reviews from users that have reviewed no other restaurant, I would be a bit more suspicious.
SHAPIRO: So you're saying don't just look at the reviews; look at the reviewer. And if it's somebody who's given a lot of reviews, giving a lot of different positive and negative ratings, it's more likely to be authentic.
ZERVAS: Absolutely. So you can click at the Yelp users profile and see what other businesses they have reviewed. And beyond indicating whether this reviewer is an astroturfer or not, it might give you a sense of whether this person has similar tastes to you and whether you should value their opinion or not.
SHAPIRO: Georgios Zervas of Boston University - he teaches marketing and researches fake reviews online - thanks very much.
ZERVAS: Thank you very much, Ari.
SHAPIRO: And by the way, while we were researching this, I wondered why fake reviews are called astroturfing. Well, here's your answer - astroturf - fake grass roots. By the way, All Tech is also on Twitter @npralltech.
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