AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Time now for All Tech Considered.
(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")
CHANG: Maybe this sounds familiar. You buy something online, and when it arrives, it's not quite what you expected. But the product had dozens of glowing reviews, like 5 out of 5 stars. Well, outside auditors say be careful. Unreliable reviews are all over e-commerce sites. They come from an underground economy where sellers pay for shining reviews. Reporter Ryan Kailath explains.
RYAN KAILATH, BYLINE: A brand new iPhone charger, like, from the Apple store costs almost 40 bucks. But Amazon has hundreds of cheaper options. That's where I got a knockoff charger recently for a third the price.
Plus free two-day shipping.
You know what this is? I've been waiting out for it. It's one of those cheap iPhone chargers, but for some reason...
PRINCE PATTERSON: Oh, the Amazon Prime ones.
PATTERSON: I just went through, like, three of those already, bro.
KAILATH: Prince Patterson drives for UPS.
Yours were good, or they were not good.
PATTERSON: They're so-so. They're a so-so charger.
KAILATH: That's the thing. These cheap chargers can range from just fine to terrible. The worst ones can fry your phone. So how do you find the good ones? In theory, user reviews help with this. If a hundred other people say the thing works great, it must work great, right? Unless...
Where you can get sellers, like the guys who make these cheap products.
PATTERSON: Mmm hmm.
KAILATH: I explain that some sellers will actually pay a few bucks for positive reviews.
PATTERSON: Now you've got me, like, wondering - that's what I look for. Before I buy anything off Amazon, I read the reviews. So now I'm wondering, like, damn, are these legit reviews?
KAILATH: Outside sites like ReviewMeta and Fakespot estimate that for certain popular products on Amazon like phone chargers, Bluetooth speakers, more than half the user reviews are suspect. Amazon disputes those estimates.
SHARON CHIARELLA: Our approximation is that less than 1 percent of reviews are inauthentic.
KAILATH: Sharon Chiarella is Amazon's vice president of community shopping. We should note here the Amazon is an NPR sponsor.
CHIARELLA: We have built a lot of technology to assess whether or not we think a review is authentic. And there's a lot that goes into that.
KAILATH: Amazon looks for suspicious patterns and scores incoming reviews for trustworthiness. Penalties for cheating can be harsh. In the past three years, Amazon sued more than a thousand sellers for buying reviews.
CHIARELLA: And when we do those lawsuits, we subpoena the bad actors to get data from them. That allows us to identify more bad actors and spider out from there and train our algorithms.
KAILATH: But as Amazon gets better at hunting them down, paid reviewers employ their own evasive maneuvers. I spoke with several online. One agreed to call me.
TRAVIS: Hey there.
KAILATH: Hey, Travis. What's up?
TRAVIS: Not much, just got out of school.
KAILATH: Travis is a teenager living in the Northeast. He asked that we use only his first name to avoid the attention and possible legal action from Amazon. Here's how it works. There are these sort of shadow marketplaces online set up just to buy and sell reviews - private Facebook groups, Slack channels, subreddits. Sellers congregate there, hawking all kinds of stuff.
TRAVIS: Ethernet cables, flashlights, protein powder, fanny packs.
KAILATH: If something catches Travis' attention, he approaches the seller, and they negotiate terms. Generally after he buys the product and leaves a five-star review, the seller will refund his purchase plus a few bucks for the trouble. Travis says he earns a couple of hundred a month this way, and the sellers provide detailed instructions to avoid detection.
TRAVIS: Order here at the Amazon link. Don't click any coupons. Review within four to five days after receiving. This one's pretty important because if you review too soon after receiving, it'll look pretty suspicious.
RENEE DIRESTA: It's sort of a whack-a-mole problem for Amazon in that the efforts to game the system persist.
KAILATH: Renee DiResta researches disinformation online. She explains that in this black market, Travis is like the low-level street dealer. The people who commission him are often companies selling products on Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant. They want to penetrate the U.S. market using Amazon's reputation and the cachet of its user reviews to do so.
DIRESTA: If you order from Alibaba, it's going to take six to eight weeks to arrive. It's not a great experience.
KAILATH: As Amazon keeps cracking down, paid reviewers will keep finding ways to evade them. Customers can turn to outside review sites like CNET or Wirecutter to find transparent information. But as long as there's a business incentive to game them, online user reviews will remain muddy waters. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Kailath.
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