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16 Red Flags an Online Review Is Fake

Buyer beware: Over 30 percent of online reviews are phonies. Here's how to not get suckered.

Communication and business concept. Businessman miniature figure standing and talking mobile phone on smart phone on white background.Montri Thipsorn/Shutterstock

Your app flags the review

Sometimes the best way to spot a computer-generated review is with another computer—and thankfully tech is on the good guys’ side as well as the bad guys.’ Fakespot, both a site and an in-browser app, allows you to copy and paste the URL of a review you’re concerned about into a box and then analyzes it with a computer algorithm for telltale signs of fakery. It will tell you what percent of the reviews for a product are considered “low quality,” meaning how many it thinks are likely to be phonies. It works best for Amazon reviews and it’s not perfect—it flagged one review I posted that was totally legit (I promise!)—but in this case it might be better to err on the side of too safe. Review Skeptic is another site aimed at sniffing out phony hotel and travel reviews. It’s not helpful if the reviews are also for a fake site! Watch out for the signs a shopping site is fake.

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The profile is peculiar

Most sites make users register an account before they can leave a review. Even if it’s not their real name (and it usually isn’t), you can still see all their past reviews by clicking on their username. If they only have one review and it’s for the product you’re looking at, be very wary. You can also look for patterns, like only reviewing one type of product (say, diet pills), only leaving very positive reviews, or only reviewing products from one company. Real people generally have a wide range of interests, tastes, and opinions, which will be reflected in their reviews. It’s an extra step but it’s worth it if you find yourself particularly swayed by a specific review.

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The reviewer received compensation

Yes, people get paid to write positive reviews for products. Amazon sued several of the biggest companies that provide this service, saying that their site was becoming “polluted” with paid-for reviews. The case is pending but even if these sites get shut down, it’s likely more will pop up in their place. It can be hard to tell if a reviewer is paid, but look for clues in their bio (like many very similar reviews) or watch for people admitting they got a gift card or some other compensation in return for their review. You can still get great deals on your favorite items without being paid for a review. These are the best ways to get deals on anything.

Shopping and e-commerce concept. Close up of miniature shopping cart toy figure on laptop computerMontri Thipsorn/Shutterstock

The reviewer received the product for free

It’s a tried-and-true marketing strategy to seed reviews by giving out free product, which works on two levels. First, people love free stuff and aren’t likely to turn it down, making the product seem more desirable than it is. Second, people may feel obligated to return the “favor” by leaving positive reviews. In fact, many companies will make the freebie contingent on leaving a review. So be wary of reviews where the person says they got the product for free. Even if the reviewer still tries to remain impartial, just the fact that they got it as a gift can skew their assessment of its true value.

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The review is short

Many fake reviews, especially those written by paid shills, are super short. Their aim is to get the overall grade or star rating up as high as possible so they’ll hit the five stars button then type something quick like “great service.” Often these shorty reviews aren’t even specific to that product, which allows the fakers to copy and paste it on many entries.

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The reviews all sound similar

Many companies do everything they can to encourage real people to review their products positively and this can include providing the text for the reviewer to make it “easier” by allowing them to copy and paste a review. Bots, because they’re computer programs pretending to be human, will often recycle set words or phrases. Scams extend beyond the inter-webs, so watch for the travel scams you need to take seriously.

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The reviews only list positives

Sure, there are some products out there worthy of a five-star review, but most things in the real world are a mix of good and bad. So when reviews give over-the-top praise, often using phrases like “the best ever” or “absolutely fantastic”—without listing any negatives—it can be a big tip-off that it’s fake. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Business and technology concept. Two businessman miniature figures standing on enter / return button of laptop computer with copyspace for text.Montri Thipsorn/Shutterstock

The review reads like an advertisment

Fake reviews, especially those for health products, often spout a long list of scientific claims, “facts,” or other marketing speak. If it reads like an advertisement, it probably in. On the flip side, bulk fake reviews often rely on vague generalities so they can be copied and pasted quickly onto different sites and products. Instead of long lists of product descriptions or vague reviews, look for those that include some personal details unique to both the product and the reviewer. Ex: “My dog Charlie loves this chew toy. It’s become his favorite way to relax in the evening.”

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The review uses “I” or “me” a lot

It may seem counterintuitive, but Cornell University research found that fake reviews often pepper sentences with “I” or “me” in an effort to make it seem more personal. However, real people will use a wider variety of pronouns and sentence structures and talk about details in a more general way.

Miniature people: Shopper with shopping cart on keyboard using as background business online concept.Fahkamram/Shutterstock

The review cites a specific alternative

Fake reviews aren’t just planted by people trying to get more people to buy their product—they’re also written by competitors who want to make the product look bad so you’ll buy theirs instead. A great way to spot this tactic: The reviewer leaves a very negative review that includes high praise for a specific alternative, often with a link to their “preferred” product. Another way to check is if you go to the page of the product they recommend and many of those reviewers say they got there because of a link on another review. These are the online scams you need to be aware of—and how to avoid them.

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The positive reviews were all written in the same time span

Fake reviewers will often inundate a product with many reviews in a very short period of time, especially if they’re trying to generate buzz about a new product. A huge red flag is if all the five-star reviews were written within 24 hours of each other or if there are large clusters of reviews written close together with long periods of inactivity in between.

Miniature shoppers with shopping carts on a computer keyboard. Online shopping concept.Amy Walters/Shutterstock

The review doesn’t verify the purchase

A surprising number of reviews are written by people who admit they haven’t tried the product, purchased it somewhere that can’t be verified, have a similar (but not the same) product, or have received it but haven’t used it yet. Why would anyone want to review something they haven’t used? Answer: Because they’re getting paid or otherwise incentivized. Some sites, like Amazon, will show “verified purchase” next to the review which can at least tell you if the person actually purchased that product.

Miniature people : Family Mother, Father and children go shopping / buying with cart on stack of coins, spending money for supermarket goods conceptBlueBoeing/Shutterstock

The reviews are either perfect or horrible

Fake reviews are most likely to be either five stars or one star—love it or hate it. But real people often aren’t so generous or critical and will be more measured in their assessment. Make sure you read at least some of the reviews with two, three, and four stars to get a more accurate picture of what people really think of the product. Or take a break from searching and read some real product reviews that are actually pretty hilarious.

Shopping and e-commerce concept. Miniature people : Close up of miniature shopper and shopping cart toy figure on smart card and smart phone.noppawan09/Shutterstock

The review doesn’t mention the product by name

Real reviewers often won’t take the time to type out the entire name of a product in the review. But fraudsters will include not only the full name but also the company name, make, model and/or price—often more than once. This is an effort to get better search engine optimization. Be especially wary if it includes special characters like the ©,  ®, and ™ symbols. Seriously, what real person takes the time to find those on a keyboard?

Miniature doctor and nurse "team specialists" observing and discussing about human brain, Science and Medical ConceptNixx Photography/Shutterstock

The reviewer changes their mind

It goes something like this: Someone swears they hated a product, but then changed their minds based on the sheer, overwhelming awesomeness of it. It’s one of the most convincing tactics used in reviews but unfortunately it’s also likely to be abused. While some of these Cinderella stories are true, ask yourself how likely it is someone would buy a product they were sure they were going to hate in the first place.

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The review features tons of exclamation points

Another tip-off is the abuse of exclamation points. Real reviewers will use a variety of punctuation where fake reviews rely heavily on extreme praise peppered with exclamation points and emojis. You can avoid fake reviews, hackers, and scammers, if you follow the best ways to protect yourself online.

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.