Now There’s Even More Reason to Distrust Online Reviews

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The latest sham doesn’t exactly pay customers to write up positive online reviews of products. But it’s more than a little sketchy when a company offers to reimburse people for their purchases if they post a review on Amazon.

We’ve all seen online product reviews that seem so positive, so over-the-top about the product’s ingeniousness and life-changing qualities that the assumption is the write-up has got to be fake. But who are all these people planting fake reviews? And why do they do it? They can’t all work for the company benefiting from the reviews, which equate to cheap marketing, can they? They can’t all be made-up customers, like the famed “Lucas Fayne,” right?

It turns out there are fairly simple ways to generate glowingly positive reviews from non-fake customers. The formula boils down to: Give people free stuff.

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The New York Times just unearthed a situation that makes the murky world of online reviews a bit murkier. Even if reviews are written by real people who own the product in question, it doesn’t mean the reviewers are entirely objective, disinterested parties.

Here’s the scenario: A company called VIP Deals sells leather tablet cases with a list price of $59.99. But, in recent months, when consumers did searches online for a case for their Amazon Kindle, an offer popped up selling VIP’s case for under $10 plus shipping and handling. When the case arrived at the consumer’s home, it was accompanied by a note requesting that the customer write a review of the product at Amazon. Also, the letter reads:

“We strive to earn 100 percent perfect ‘FIVE-STAR’ scores from you!”

OK, that’s what any company would want. But then there’s this:

“In return for writing the review, we will refund your order so you will have received the product for free.”

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So this isn’t exactly a quid pro quo in which the refund occurred only after a five-star rating was filed. Apparently, the customer was compensated no matter what the rating score, and no matter what the review said. Nonetheless, the situation’s questionable at best. As are the product’s ratings: As of last week, 310 out of 335 of the VIP case’s reviews on Amazon received five stars.

After finding out about the freebie-for-review, some Amazon customers cried foul. Others, though, defended VIP’s practices. One man, who has been a seller on Amazon and admitted to getting and giving freebies for writing reviews, wrote: “It is not a scam but an incentive.”

But any incentive that skews results, misleads consumers, and calls into question the entire world of “objective” online reviews sure stinks like something of a scam.

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What’s Amazon’s take on this scandal? It isn’t saying much. But after getting wind of the Times story, all of the reviews of VIP’s tablet case were removed. Later, the product page disappeared too.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.