Is that online review real? Here’s how to spot a fake

Not all the reviews you see online are real -- here's how to spot a phony.

You’ve probably heard the saying, don’t believe everything you see on the internet.

The same rule goes for online reviews.

The Better Business Bureau is warning consumers to be on the lookout for fake reviews online while shopping on big websites, like Amazon.

The BBB said ecommerce websites often have tools in place to analyze and remove fake reviews, but as sellers continually find new ways to craft fake reviews and hire thousands of people to post them, getting rid of every fake review quickly is nearly impossible. As a consumer, the key is knowing when to pass on a product by recognizing red flags in phony reviews.

The BBB offered some detailed steps on what to look for when you’re online shopping.

How to spot a fake review

  • Look out for generic reviewer profiles. If a reviewer has a very common or generic name, such as John Smith or Jane Doe, you’ve spotted a red flag. Fake reviewers usually post under fake names, sometimes even just a series of letters and numbers, and rarely do they have a profile picture.
  • Read reviews by customers with verified purchases. Many ecommerce sites add a badge or otherwise indicate if a purchase is verified, meaning the reviewer bought the product on the same site where they wrote the review. Reviews of non-verified purchases are much more likely to be fake.
  • Examine the quality of product reviews. A good review will briefly explain why or why not the product in question was a good purchase. If you notice a product has several five-star or one-star reviews with just a word or two in the written portion of the review, you may be looking at fake reviews. This is especially true if you notice multiple, similar reviews posted during a short window of time.
  • Be wary of scene-setting. A study conducted by Cornell university found that truthful reviewers usually include concrete words relating to the product or service they purchased, whereas fake reviewers like to set the scene. They may talk about how “their husband” visited a specific hotel for a “vacation” or “business trip” instead of focusing on the actual hotel experience. This is another fake review red flag.
  • Check the grammar and spelling. Sometimes sellers outsource their fake reviews to content farms, where people who are not native English speakers write reviews. The result is fake reviews with misspellings and poor grammar. If you read a review out loud and it doesn’t sound natural, it could be a fake.
  • Find out if the reviewer received a free product. Some ecommerce platforms have programs that pre-release products to customers in exchange for their honest review. One example is Amazon Vine. This kind of program is usually legitimate and can be helpful, but if you notice almost every review of a product comes from someone who received a free product, think twice. It’s also good to take a look at the reviews overall. If the only satisfied customer was the one who received a free product, it may not be worth paying for.
  • Look at the quantity of reviews. Business Insider warns that if a product only has a few reviews, especially in comparison to similar products, it’s likely the product is less than reliable.
  • Try a tool for spotting fake reviews. There are third-party tools available to help you weed out fake reviews. Some of them provide a letter grade based on how many fake reviews were spotted, while others eliminate fake reviews to provide consumers with an adjusted star rating. These tools aren’t infallible though, so instead of expecting a black and white answer, use them to assist you in making a purchasing decision.
  • Report fake reviews. Most platforms allow you to report abuse if you notice a fake review. Doing so can help the platform eliminate fake reviews faster and it can protect your fellow consumers.

About the Authors:

Hank Winchester is Local 4’s Consumer Investigative Reporter and the head of WDIV’s “Help Me Hank” Consumer Unit. Hank works to solve consumer complaints, reveal important recalls and track down thieves who have ripped off people in our community.

Ken Haddad has proudly been with WDIV/ClickOnDetroit since 2013. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters, and helps lead the WDIV Insider team. He's a big sports fan and is constantly sipping Lions Kool-Aid.