How To Tell If An Online Review Is Fake

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User reviews are immensely helpful, especially in the world of skincare and beauty products. After all, this is stuff you put on your face. Your precious face! But when some of those reviews turn out to be fake, how can you be sure you can trust anything you read?

Skincare company Sunday Riley has settled with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission after being accused of posting fake reviews of its product for two years. According to the FTC complaint, Sunday Riley, the CEO of the eponymous brand, instructed staffers and interns to set up accounts and leave reviews for the company’s products – some of which cost more than $150 — on Sephora’s website.

Riley even emailed her staff step-by-step instructions for using a VPN to conceal their identities as they set up fake accounts to leave five-star reviews while being “very enthusiastic without looking like a plant,” according to the FTC complaint, filed last year.

In addition, staff were supposed to keep track of other (legitimate) reviews, “dislike” those that were negative, and write reviews to overpower any negative comments. “As reviews come in, read them too. If you notice someone saying things like I didn’t like “x” about it, write a review that says the opposite,” one memo instructed.

What’s the penalty for pushing fake reviews? Well, nothing. The brand must be crystal clear going forward about who’s being paid to promote the company’s products, and is supposed to instruct its staff on disclosure practices. The FTC couldn’t even agree on the settlement, with three of the commissioners of the agency voting for it and two dissenting.

The dissenting commissioners issued a statement that the FTC should have gone for a monetary penalty, saying this settlement rewards bad actors and hurts honest companies, according to The Fashion Law.

How to identify fake reviews

The fake Sunday Riley reviews focused on new products, in an attempt to get more attention and sales. So for a quick gut check, pay attention to the number of reviews on newly released products. “Watch out for recently launched products that suddenly have thousands of positive reviews,” Michael Bonebright, consumer analyst at DealNews.com, said.

Some sites, like Amazon, have an early review program that clearly marks reviews of new items written by reviewers who are sometimes compensated for their efforts. “If you don’t see any signs that a seller has taken advantage of that program to get those initial reviews, that’s [a] red flag,” he said. Not every online store will have such a program, but many major retailers will point out if a reviewer received a product early or free for review.

Regardless of where you’re browsing, look for repeated words or phrases that show up in a bunch of reviews. “Amazon is pretty good at weeding out these kinds of fakes, but other sites are less diligent,” Bonebright said.

And if you’re not confident about written reviews, Bonebright recommended looking for a video review you can watch: “While these reviewers are often compensated for their review, you can still see the product and get a better understanding of its actual value.”


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