The proportion of fraudulent positive reviews could be higher. How can a consumer tell the real from the fake
We can all wish to go back to simpler days when trial and error were the primary factors that determined purchasing decisions but it's time to grow up and beware, says Channel NewsAsia's Bharati Jagdish.
You arrive at your hotel in a sunny resort expecting what the majority of reviewers said online – slick furnishings, 5-star bespoke amenities such as a vast pillow menu and custom toiletries and impeccable service at 3-star prices.
But what you get is horrifyingly abysmal – damp sheets, a musty stench in the air and none of the custom amenities you were promised.
Although everyone who has been through such an experience tells me vehemently that they have ceased to take reviews into account when making buying decisions, this is still not yet an uncommon story.
A recent episode of Talking Point pointed out that the prevalence of fake reviewers has risen in tandem with the online shopping boom.
A 2016 survey by business consultancy PwC showed some 57 per cent of respondents in Singapore used social media to read reviews, compared with 45 per cent globally.
While family members and friends have the most impact on buying behaviour, data analytics lecturer Koh Noi Sian from Nanyang Polytechnic said positive online reviews have been found to increase sales by 9 per cent.
There would be nothing wrong with any of this if the reviews were authentic.
But the programme also found that the proportion of fraudulent positive reviews could be higher than many of us thought.
It’s an industry unto itself with one company saying it pays about 80,000 individuals to post such reviews for its clients’ products and services.
Most of these individuals are likely to have never tried the products or services.
This may not come as a surprise to many who already take such reviews with a pinch of salt.
But many others clearly trust, at least until they are sorely disappointed.
Thankfully, there are tools these days to help consumers analyse the authenticity of such reviews.
But even these aren’t absolutely accurate and telling real from fake remains challenging.
INSIDIOUS ADVERTISING COMES IN MANY FORMS
A healthy scepticism is clearly needed here and many would agree that since the early days of advertising, the term “caveat emptor” or “let the buyer beware” applied to every buying decision.
But there is something disturbingly insidious about ads made to look like genuine user reviews.
Several years ago, when social media influencers came under fire for not clearly marking their sponsored posts as ads, the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS) stepped in with guidelines.
The guidelines on advertising and marketing communication on interactive and social media state that disclosures of commercial relationships and disclaimers should be made prominent, paid reviews, testimonials and endorsements have to be clearly indicated and reviews that are disguised as being from impartial sources are not permitted.
Those who fail to comply with the guidelines risk having the ads removed, the withholding of advertising space or time by media owners, or even the withdrawal of trading privileges from advertising agencies.
Many have said the penalties could be harsher and consumer protection laws need to have more teeth.
But even then, clearly not every instance of a breach of these guidelines will be detected and acted upon.
Some online businesses have been taking steps of their own.
In 2016, in its effort to combat fake reviews on its platform, Amazon sued three of its sellers for using fake accounts to post fake reviews about their products. It also used lawsuits to discourage the buying and selling of reviews.
But while we often demand that businesses, the authorities and organisations like ASAS and the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) protect consumers better, we would certainly benefit from becoming more savvy ourselves.
In 2015, we learnt that even negative reviews can be fraudulent.
Social media agency Gushcloud was found to have incentivised social media influencers to complain about rival telcos as part of a campaign for Singtel.
The morass of dubious, solicited and inauthentic reviews could leave a consumer’s head spinning.
But just as we have discussed media literacy in the context of detecting and eschewing fake news or deliberate online falsehoods, we need to become more advertising literate.
There is evidence of healthy scepticism when it comes to social media marketing. For instance, earlier this year when the Ministry of Finance tapped social media influencers to raise awareness and engagement on Budget 2018, many netizens wondered if the influencers involved had the requisite knowledge or interest to authentically execute the task.
However, consumer literacy goes beyond this.
Last year, CASE reported an “alarming rise” in the amount of prepayments reported lost by consumers when businesses closed down.
Since then, CASE has been advising consumers to negotiate progressive payments instead of paying in full upfront; to find out if a business offers any insurance or escrow arrangements to protect prepayments; to choose the "pay as you use" option instead of prepaid packages; and to always ask about the refund policy for the prepayment.
Yet, we have seen similar cases recently involving travel agencies and a furniture store with consumers reporting losses of thousands of dollars.
While there might be some legal recourse under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act, recovering lost money can often be impossible.
Therefore, we would certainly do well to take precautions before parting with our money offline or online.
Businesses also need to learn that consumers will eventually catch on.
Operating on the premise that there will be enough of us falling for such tricks online is unsustainable.
Reputable businesses would tell you that establishing your brand’s reputation by partnering a real person who is worthy of your target consumers’ trust and who gives a balanced, authentic review is key to retaining and attracting customers.
Nothing beats a proven track record. Not even an avalanche of fraudulent reviews.
For consumers, thankfully, word-of-mouth through an individual’s own network or family and friends still holds sway.
We can all wish to go back to simpler days when this and trial and error were the primary factors that determined our puchasing decisions.
But to be realistic, it is wiser to take it upon ourselves to become smarter consumers.
It is time to grow up and beware.