Hoping to crack down on fake reviews for products sold on its marketplace, Amazon.com Inc. has sued operators of four websites that sell fictional, often five-star praise.
Amazon this week filed a civil lawsuit in King County Superior Court in Washington state, accusing Jay Gentile, a California “marketing specialist” who runs BuyAzonReviews.com, along with the as-yet-unidentified person or people behind BuyAmazonReviews.com, BayReviews.Net and BuyReviewsnow.Com, according to the case filing. The suit seeks the shuttering of the sites and damages of up to $100,000 per domain name, plus other costs. The legal action may already have had an impact. The BuyAzonReviews and BayReviews.Net sites generate “404 Not Found” error messages today. The BuyAmazonReviews and BuyReviewsnow sites still were loading as of late Thursday morning.
Amazon claims that the website operators have violated several laws including the Washington consumer protection act and federal trademark protections. The e-retailer wants to shut down the websites and collect damages that, on paper at least, would exceed $100,000 per site.
No later than November, Amazon claims, those websites launched and began selling reviews for products that were never inspected or received by the writers. Typically selling for between $19 and $22 a pop, the reviews, as in this one for an USB cord, read like this example provided by Amazon:
Bought this for my Galaxy phone and I have to say, this is a pretty cool USB cord! :) I like the lights in the cord as it puts off a cool glowing effect in my room at night and it makes it much easier to see, thanks for the great product!”
The item received five stars—the highest mark—was written by “Tiffany” on March 30 and was dishonestly labeled as a verified purchase, the tag Amazon allows on reviews for products the e-retailer believes were bought from its site.
According to Amazon, Gentile told a “customer”—it was unclear from the lawsuit if that customer was someone working for Amazon posing as a retailer seeking favorable reviews—that he could “provide as many five-star reviews as the purchaser wanted, promised to ‘slow drip’ them onto the product pages so that Amazon would have a more difficult time detecting them, and suggested the (review) purchaser ‘do a few verified purchase reviews … so as to not raise any eyebrows with Amazon.’” Gentile further explained that the reviewers at buyazonreviews.com do not actually need to receive the products they are reviewing, and the purchaser could simply ship empty packages in an effort to fool Amazon into believing the reviewer was a ‘verified purchaser,’ saying: “We suggest for tracking purposes that you just ship out an empty box or envelope (as) this will show Amazon that the item has actually shipped.”
Gentile could not be immediately located this morning for comment, and emails sent to the sites in question were not immediately answered.
The frequently asked questions section at BuyAmazonReviews provides a glimpse into the review business, with the site operator saying “real reviews from real users” are sold, and that “buying reviews for your Amazon products has many benefits. Products with positive reviews receive better placement in Amazon searches. Not only that but all of our reviews provide original content on your product pages which creates more content for Google to index so better results from Google searches.” The site gives buyers the option of writing their own reviews or using the company’s “in house writers who are skilled at writing custom reviews based on your specifications. After your order is made we collect some basic details so we can form custom reviews that will be used on your listing. Review length will be between 100 to 150 words.” The company says it usually needs 48 to 78 hours to start on a review order and adds that sellers needn’t worry about damaging their Amazon accounts. “We only used authorized review methods that ensure the safety of your account.”
Another review provider, BuyReviewsnow.com, says it “provides real reviews from aged accounts with real buying activity.” Amazon requires that reviews come from customers who have Amazon accounts. The e-retailer also expresslyl prohibits paid reviews via its “custuomer review creation guidelines.” BuyReviewsnow.com also promises its clients originality: “We just don’t copy reviews from elsewhere and rewrite them. Your reviews will be 100% unique.”
Amazon did not immediately reply to requests for comment. The e-retailer, No. 1 in the Internet Retailer 2014 Top 500 Guide, typically does not comment on pending litigation.
Amazon also says in the suit that some of the sites use Amazon branding and trademarks, a claim made clear when one goes to BuyAmazonReviews.com, where the type is very similar to that employed at Amazon.com (and where a note at the bottom promises “more new services soon”). That site also claims that it provides “Real Reviews from Real Amazon accounts, guaranteed!”
Amazon says only consumers with Amazon accounts can write reviews. Another site in question, BuyAzonReviews.com uses the e-retailer’s “trademarked logo and a confusingly similar web address,” Amazon says in the lawsuit.
According to several Amazon marketplace experts reached this morning—not all of whom wanted to be identified—up to 40% of all unverified product reviews are fictional. Those experts also explain that it can take 1,000 consumer views of a marketplace product before that item starts showing up in the marketplace’s site search—one reason that brands, retailers and manufacturers might be tempted to speed up that process through fake positive reviews, which can trick the marketplace’s algorithm into ranking that item higher in search results.
According to the latest figures from Amazon, its marketplace sellers in 2014 sold more than 2 billion items globally. That’s double the 1 billion items sold via the Amazon marketplace a year earlier. It also says more than 2 million sellers operate on its marketplace. Together, those sellers accounted for more than 40% of total units sold on Amazon last year.
James Thomson, managing director at Marketplace Accelerator, which offers consulting services to online sellers, says that when it comes to marketplace sales, sellers of electronic accessories are among the “slimiest,” because they compete for “crazy high margins” on items that are easy to source overseas. “Everyone wants their product to show up on the first page” of search results, says Thomson, who previously was a fulfillment, business development and marketplace professional at Amazon.
Dozens of organizations will sell fake product reviews, with prices dipping to $5 each, and Amazon’s suit is unlikely to have much impact on the market for such reviews, he says. “It will be a momentary blip because most of these sites will reinvent themselves tomorrow,” Thomson says.Favorite