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Retail giant Amazon is only removing a proportion of a flood of fake and suspicious reviews that risk misleading shoppers into buying poor quality products, a Which? investigation has found.

The consumer champion looked at the number of reviews that Amazon removes for popular tech products and found 78,000 that have been removed in the last three years.

When Which? looked at reviews for a single product category – headphones – on a single day, it found the vast majority of 12,000 reviews displayed on the first page of products were from unverified purchasers or had suspiciously high five-star ratings – two of the key red flags for fake reviews.

Furthermore, Which? found tens of thousands of potentially fake reviews on just a couple of dozen products, which suggests that far more needs to be done to truly address the problem.

According to data from ReviewMeta, the percentage of unverified reviews – meaning Amazon cannot confirm whether the reviewer has actually bought the product – has increased significantly. In the first quarter of 2018, six per cent of the reviews on Amazon were unverified, but for the same period in 2019 this had risen to 31 per cent.

In March 2019 the number of unverified reviews on Amazon rose by nearly 300 per cent compared to the previous month, with average star ratings of unverified reviews at 4.95 out of five.

Which? is warning that high numbers of unverified, positive product reviews could be an indication that a product’s overall rating is being manipulated by fake reviews.

Amazon told Which? that it estimates that more than 90 per cent of inauthentic reviews are computer generated. The company said it uses machine learning technology to analyse all incoming and existing reviews 24/7 and block or remove inauthentic reviews.

The problem of fake unverified reviews is compounded by evidence that unscrupulous businesses are finding ways to manipulate average product ratings with verified reviews.

Which? has exposed Amazon “review factory” Facebook groups, which encourage users of the social network to post positive reviews in return for payment of other incentives and further erode trust in the reliability of Amazon reviews.

Since Which? reported its findings to Amazon, many of the products or suspect reviews that it found in its recent this investigation have been removed. However, more products or suspicious reviews have immediately taken their place, suggesting that Amazon is struggling to stem the tide of fake reviews.

With 97 per cent of shoppers relying on online customer reviews to help make a purchase, fake reviews are a serious problem, which can mislead customers into buying products that are not fit for purpose.

The Competition and Markets Authority estimates that £23 billion a year of UK consumer spending is potentially influenced by online reviews and has warned that writing or commissioning fake reviews could lead to civil or criminal action.

Natalie Hitchins, Which? Head of Home Products and Services, said: “Our research shows that while thousands of potentially fake reviews are being removed from Amazon each month, this isn’t nearly enough to address a real problem for online shoppers that seems to be getting worse, not better.

“To avoid being tricked into buying a product that you might otherwise have avoided, watch out for fake reviews and search for independent and trusted sources when looking to make a purchase.”

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