Astroturf isn't just for football stadiums anymore.
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Shopping online is easier than ever, but making sure you get a good product you can trust is tough when you usually have to put your money down before you try it. And with online shopping becoming a $1 Trillion-With-A-T business, the scammers are out in full force. That means many products on sites like Amazon have to contend with an old problem: Astroturf.
What is Astroturf? It's when a company puts up fake comments or reviews of a product on sites to boost its profile and reputation. These fake reviews turn a 3-star product into a 5-star product and convince you to part with your money. Our friends at The Wirecutter took a look at this last year, but there are new trends in the world of fake reviews that can go unnoticed. Here's what you need to know to protect yourself in 2017.
Amazon has tried to highlight real reviews with its "Verified Purchaser" system, emphasizing reviews from accounts that actually bought the product in question. But even this isn't a perfect system, and when abused it means you're more likely to see fake reviews. Even if you stick primarily to top-selling products on Amazon you can get taken for a ride.
Take, for instance, this top-selling Bluetooth speaker we found while researching another story. It has a nearly perfect 5-star rating from over 30 reviews (nearly all of them marked "Verified Purchaser"), the manufacturer product photos look legit, it's a top-selling product in its category. Seems great, right?
Even these sites yielded mixed results, though. ReviewMeta gives the Infinite X Outdoor Sports speaker a "Warn," citing "unnatural reviews." FakeSpot, on the other hand, gives the Bliiq speaker an A, saying it has over 90% quality reviews. In this case, the wording and names of the reviewers didn't raise a red flag, but the distribution of the reviews certainly should have.
Both of these sites use algorithms to look for common signs of illicit review behavior. The problem? This behavior changes all the time, and scammers can easily switch up their tactics to get by them.
In this case, though, you have to trust your judgement. For starters, the brand name is off. It's Bliiq, but in the title it says it used to be "Orange Bolt." That's just weird. Also the reviews come from people like ROBERT Green, HARRY REX, Sullivan Jeff, and use similar-sounding language that don't dig into the product itself. There are also 97% 5-star reviews, when even the best products almost always have a few duds that earn them 1- or 2-star grades from people.
A little light Google work reveals a work-in-progress site for the Orange Bolt Infinite X, which is the same as the speaker being sold on Amazon. The site is basically empty, except for some characters that translate simply to "Click here to edit." Add those up and it's pretty likely you're looking at at least some fake reviews. It's impossible to know for sure, of course, which is why sussing out fake reviews is such a tricky business.
One nasty side-effect of this is these products are often only sold through third-party marketplace sellers. Even if they're fulfilled by Amazon, these sellers often have their own return policies separate from Amazon, so if you get a bad speaker you may not be able to get your money back.
As always, keep your head and use your best judgement when shopping online. Buying shady products is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you're going to get.
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