Amazon's attack of fake reviews is as brilliant as it is necessary

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It's a rare lawsuit that achieves good. Amazon's might just end up doing that.

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Companies suing people that use their sites can be dicey proposition — security firm FireEye recently showed the wrong way to use the courts — but Amazon's legal threats against more than 1,000 people who are allegedly posting bogus reviews is exactly the right move.

What Amazon didn't do was merely file a John Doe lawsuit against unidentified people who are posting seemingly false reviews. No, Amazon conducted its own investigation, posing as customers and trying to buy false reviews, either favorable for someone who didn't deserve it or negative for a competitor.

The differences between what FireEye did and what Amazon did are critical because it's not the legal action — or threatened legal action — that is at issue here. It's the intent behind those actions and, critically, how customers are likely to perceive those actions. Are the actions against someone who is seen as a friend of other customers or an enemy? Do the actions make the company seem proud of what it is offering and willing to defend it, or do they make the company seem defensive and insecure about its own products and services?

In the FireEye case, the targets of the legal threat were security researchers who had uncovered legitimate FireEye security holes — even FireEye confirmed them. FireEye's customers would see those researchers as friends.

But with Amazon, the credibility of online reviews is crucial and Amazon users would see people who write fake reviews as enemies. Amazon sends the best possible message to its customers when it's seen as proactively and aggressively seeking out such evildoers: "We believe in our products and services and know that honest reviews will be of the greatest value."

It further sends this important message: "We know that some of the products and services our partners deliver are not perfect. We want our audience to help identify those problems so that they can be addressed. We rely on your reviews, too."

How powerful are these reviews? Shoppers have been known to go to Amazon solely to check out the reviews, even if they intend to make the purchase at a local physical store. (Funny how I never hear Best Buy or Walmart complaining about reverse showrooming. OK, to be fair, there's no way for them to know about it, other than some stray Amazon referrals to their websites. But still…) It's a very non-vicious cycle. The more Amazon polices its reviews, the greater the trust people will have in those reviews. And as the faith people have in Amazon reviews rises, so too will the number of legitimate reviews produced. That will make even more people use those reviews. And as long as people are on the Amazon site, there's a fine chance that many of them will go ahead and complete their purchases while they're there, even if that wasn't their original intent.

Fortunately, many of the fake reviews are simply terrible. Very few reviews are entirely positive. Of far greater concern to me — in terms of having bogus reviews actually mislead shoppers — are falsely negative reviews for competitors. It's much easier to convincingly write a negative review than it is to persuasively write a positive one. For most Americans, complaining comes effortlessly. (Whenever anyone tells me "Can't complain," I reply "You're not really trying." Us curmudgeons think like that.)

A nice touch that Amazon has tried is "verified purchase." It's a helpful element, but it doesn't really address most bogus reviews. Except for the most expensive items, it's easy enough for most fake reviewers to buy one copy of whatever the item is. As the Amazon lawsuit pointed out: "In at least one instance, the seller of a 'Verified Review' (i.e., an 'Amazon Verified Purchase') was willing to receive an empty envelope, not the product itself, simply to create a shipping record in an attempt to deceive Amazon and its customers."

Another good element of Amazon's probe is that it specifically went to the places where these con artists live, such as Fiverr, which is apparently cooperating with Amazon. Fiverr's big mission is to offer services — including fake Amazon reviews — for $5.

Amazon's filing makes clear that it considers reviews to be a key part of its offerings: "Amazon pioneered customer reviews 20 years ago and is now home to hundreds of millions of unique reviews. Reviews provide a forum for sharing authentic feedback about products and services — positive or negative. Amazon does not remove reviews because they are critical; Amazon believes all helpful information can inform its customers’ buying decisions," the federal filing said.

The trick here is the multiple IP address game. Through various methods, it's easy to circumvent Amazon's bad-address detection systems. Amazon's theory, which I applaud, is to punish as many as possible, thereby acting as a deterrent to those who try to fool the system. In short, Amazon's message is "Most of you will be able to dodge us, but you're gambling that you won't be the one we find and make an example of. You don't think we can be vindictive? How lucky are you feeling today? You're taking an awfully big risk for a $5 client."

The intent of Amazon's undercover dealings with people willing to write fake reviews is identical to that of police undercover operations: If it's done enough, you plant the seed of doubt in the mind of the criminal: "Is this prospective client real or an undercover Amazon investigator? And is it really worth $5 to find out the hard way?"

The lawsuit cited one con artist boasting that he or she "can place reviews through 100 different Amazon accounts."

And Amazon has the right idea when it says that it will not block out those IP addresses once they are proven to have been used illegally. "Although Amazon has successfully requested removal of similar listings from Fiverr in the past, the removal of individual listings does not address the root cause of the issue or serve as a sufficient deterrent to the bad actors engaged in creating and purchasing fraudulent product reviews," Amazon's lawsuit said. "This action is the next step in a long-term effort to ensure these providers of fraudulent reviews do not offer their illicit services through other channels and to take enforcement action against the dishonest sellers and manufacturers who use those services."

Amazon is doing a favor for all online retailers by aggressively trying to maintain the trustworthiness of its own reviews. If it succeeds, shoppers will tend to be more comfortable with all reviews. But the more Amazon really verifies its reviews, the more loyalty it will earn. Every now and then, a lawsuit threatens to do some good. This is one of those times.

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