How trustworthy are online product reviews?

Randy Meier

If you don’t do some shopping online, you are in a distinct minority in the United States. Surveys from the end of 2016 showed 80 percent of Americans shopped online. It’s a safe bet that number only climbed since then. A lot of online shoppers rely on, or at least consider, the online reviews displayed on the website for the particular product they are looking at.

Well, how reliable do you think these reviews are? National Public Radio ran a story this week on just this topic. The answer to the question is – it depends on who you ask. Amazon, a company whose name seems interchangeable with the phrase “online shopping”, told NPR less than one percent of reviews are fake. And by fake, I mean someone got paid to write a glowing review, true or not.

Turns out there are sketchy marketplaces on the internet, where you can buy and sell reviews. These operate in private Facebook groups, or other work-sharing worksites, like Slack, or specific forums on Reddit, a social news site. NPR interviewed several writers of fake reviews, including one teenager who admitted he makes $200 a month doing this. He reported he finds something he wants to review, connects with the seller through these shadowy methods, negotiates a price for the review, and then buys the item. Once he gets the merchandise, he waits a few days, and writes a five star review. The seller refunds his purchase price, and pays a commission for the review.

Online retailers like Amazon know a lot of dishonest people are trying to game this system, and told NPR they employ sophisticated technological algorithms to root out the fake reviews. They also sue retailers who use Amazon to show fake reviews, in the last three years suing over 1,000 sellers for buying fake reviews.

Certain categories of products seem more likely to gather fake reviews – computer accessories, small electronics, or cheaply made Chinese products especially. Many of these products are cheaply priced knock-offs for popular name-brand items, like Apple iPhone chargers.

Along with Amazon’s efforts to root out fake reviews, other websites, acting as outside auditors, developed their own algorithms to detect fake reviews. I tried out two of these websites, Fakespot and Reviewmeta. These websites allow a user, for free, to check out a webpage offering a reviewed product for sale. The results on both sites when I tested them, came back within five seconds, and showed me the probability of fake reviews. How do they make this calculation? Reviewmeta explains what they look at better than Fakespot, but essentially they look at language and behavior patterns in the reviews, and come up with a score. Fakespot and Reviewmeta think more than half the reviews on “certain popular products”, are fake.

Here’s my advice on online reviews – as with pretty much everything else appearing on the internet, don’t take them at face value. Check other sources besides the user reviews appearing on the marketing website. CNET and Wirecutter are two to consider. Consumer Reports does an exhaustive testing of many products. But you many never find an outside review on many small articles, like a charging cable. You’ll need to use your head, and remember, most of the time, “you get what you pay for.”

Western Union settlement – not too late to apply for refund

I keep bringing up this topic, because it is one of the few opportunities around for scam victims to recover some of their stolen money. The U.S. government sued Western Union for facilitating fraud, and won. Western Union agreed to pay $586 million to victims of fraud involving use of Western Union money transfers, from 2004 to 2017. The application deadline for filing claims was May 31, 2018. However, the settlement administrator will still accept claims after that deadline, but the claimant must understand, “claims filed late subject to review at a later date, at the sole discretion of the Dept of Justice.” In other words, if you file late, you go to the end of the line. But you can still get in line.

If you lost money in a scam involving Western Union and did not file a claim, get hold of me and we can set a claim in motion. The Iowa Attorney General reported Iowans filed over $11 million in claims from 2,139 people. One person filed a claim for $500,000 lost over a 10-year time span by a victim who kept sending money to pay fees associated with claiming an inheritance from Nigeria.

Scam trends

For several years, thousands of us in this area received robo-calls telling us to contact the IRS because of tax evasion. Those calls are still going out, but I’m hearing of a wrinkle in the threats. Several folks reported calls in which the caller claims the call is from the Social Security Administration, and the caller claims fraud was detected “on the last account with your last four numbers.” This information is accompanied with threats of arrest if you don’t call immediately. It’s a scam, just like those calls claiming to come from the IRS.

Contact Seniors vs. Crime

Let me know about scams, fraud, or other crookedness you run across. Most of what I learn, I learn from you. Contact me at Seniors vs. Crime, Clinton County Sheriff’s Office, 242-9211 Ext. 4433, or email me at

Randy Meier is the director of Seniors vs. Crime, which operates in conjunction with the Clinton County Sheriff's Office.