Growing Number Of Cyber Shills Invade Online Reviews

Since the dawn of online reviews, businesses have been attempting to game the system by flooding sites with bogus star ratings, fictitious reviews. And even though the major sites have enacted safeguards to prevent automated ways of rigging reviews, there’s little they can do to stop an actual human from logging on to boost a review in exchange for a few pennies.

And that’s literally all it takes, says a new study from researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara, which found that a growing number of companies are turning to shadowy shills in China, where a fake review — or a Facebook like, a Twitter follower, etc. — from a real person can run you as little as $.13 to $.70.

The chart shown above (from the UCSB study) shows what two China-based companies charged per-task for things like posting on forums and registering accounts.


Organizers enlist dozens or hundreds of professional shills. They orchestrate mass account creation (bolstering “XYZ Systems now has 100,000 registered users” claims), generate bogus ratings, post canned cut-and-paste positive reviews — and follow up with screenshots of their successes. Money flows from the customer to the organizer, then to the shills. And it’s very difficult — if not impossible — to trace.

“Our results suggest that campaigns on these systems are highly effective at reaching users, and their continuing growth poses a concrete threat to online communities such as social networks, both in the US and elsewhere,” conclude the researchers.

As we’ve warned readers in the past, there are numerous ways to spot bogus reviews. For example:
*Look for marketing speak, wherein the reviewer is obviously copying and pasting from a press release.
*If it’s a site where reviewers are required to register, check out the reviewer to see if they have written other reviews. Chances are that a faker will either have no other reviews under their belt or they will all be extremely positive, no matter how bad the product.

You can download a PDF of the entire UCSB study here.

Thanks to Dave for the tip!


Edit Your Comment

  1. Cat says:

    The chart shown above?

  2. dolemite says:

    The only real way to combat this is to only allow customers that have purchased the item to review it.

    • kc2idf says:

      That’s all well and good, but you should not want to discourage someone who bought the product someplace else from reviewing it on your site, because a review is a review and is useful to all if it is legit. Beyond requiring they bought it from you, I’m not sure how you would tell. There is also the matter of whether or not the product was given as a gift, in which case the buyer is not qualified to review, but someone else, who received it as a gift, is.

      • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

        A partial resolution would be to create an industry standard practice whereas each pruduct would have a review code card included in the packaging, where you could claim the card for a review at an industry-agreed site.

        Obviously it’s not perfect – cards could be sold, websites would lose their own review system, etc. But it could significantly reduce the issue down.

        • kc2idf says:

          This is an interesting proposition, though it does still leave the reviewee in charge of controlling the supply of reviews — the review cards could be handed out by management to the shills.

      • nugatory says:

        I’ve seen a few sites that mark reviews as Verified Owner or something similar if they buy it from the site where they are posting the review. I’ll give those reviews much more credence than unconfirmed owners.

  3. Nobody can say "Teehee" with a straight face says:

    Good ol China, always on the bleeding edge of corruption, bad products and false advertising!

    • GrayMatter says:

      Well, the winner of the Worst Company in America couldn’t earn the Golden Poo if they did not have somewhere to study.

  4. Coffee says:

    Cleer this stdying is not correctly. their are no Shills in the Middle Kin…uh…in Chnai.

  5. GuyGuidoEyesSteveDave‚Ñ¢ says:

    How much do they charge to write a post on a blog for you?

  6. Not Given says:

    That’s why Amazon has ‘verified purchase’ on some of the reviews

    • Dallas_shopper says:

      I like that feature, but I’ve reviewed plenty of items on Amazon that I didn’t buy from Amazon. Sadly Amazon can’t tell the difference between a shill and me reviewing a DVD that I bought at Wal-Mart instead.

      • whogots is "not computer knowledgeable" says:

        They need to come up with a definition of ‘trusted reviewer” and give “report abuse” links to several thousand trusted reviewers with diverse interests. This seems a lot like Slashdot metamoderation.

    • tbax929 says:

      My issue with Amazon reviews is when people give a product a bad review because they had shipping or packaging issues. Why can’t these idiots figure out that a product review is not a place for such a complaint?

      I also hate when people give a negative review to a product because they stupidly expected it to do something it isn’t intended to do. When I was tablet shopping, I couldn’t believe how many people would slam a $200 Android tablet because it wasn’t an iPad. Duh!

      • BurtReynolds says:

        Or third party vendors.

      • kosmo @ The Soap Boxers says:

        “I couldn’t believe how many people would slam a $200 Android tablet because it wasn’t an iPad. Duh!”

        I saw someone give Journey to the Center of the Earth a bad review because the science was out of date.

        I’m not sure if the reviewer expected Jules Verne to look 150 years in the future and include today’s scientific theories instead of the ones of his own time period, or if they wanted a translator to destroy a classic novel by “fixing” it.

  7. framitz says:

    Wach for por gramir and spiling truout te review.

    And do not believe any anonymous reviews anywhere.

    • Dr.Wang says:

      Maybe it’s just me, but when people refer to things as a “product” instead of what it really is I get suspicious. Examples: It is the best haircare product… instead of: it is the best shampoo. Or: It is the one product that has the most life-like image… instead of: it is the one TV with the most life-like image.

  8. Costner says:

    I find the biggest red flag is when common reviewers include the full company and model number numerous times throughout a review. Whereas most reviews might use the full name once, fake reviews seem to cut and paste it throughout because they will use the same review for multiple items. For example:

    “I thoroughly enjoyed using my ACME Company Series 7, version 2.4 vacuum cleaner with removable dust bin. In fact, it was the most powerful household tool I have ever used and the power cord on my ACME Company Series 7, version 2.4 vacuum cleaner is 40 feet which is at least 10 feet longer than most vacuums. I also love the automatic carpet height adjustment on my ACME Company Series 7, version 2.4 vacuum cleaner because it is so easy to use. I am so happy with my ACME Company Series 7, version 2.4 vacuum cleaner that I will never purchase another vacuum cleaner ever again!”

    Now they just replace “ACME Company Series 7, version 2.4 vacuum cleaner” with “XYZ Company Model 34 vacuum cleaner” and post it elsewhere.

  9. Dr. Shrinker says:

    When I bought a car this year, the Audi dealership gave me an extra $500 off if I gave them a positive review on Yelp. My experience actually was positive, so I didn’t mind doing it, but I did feel a bit like a whore…

    • framitz says:

      To get right with yourself you should do another HONEST Yelp review and mention the bribery.

      • cparkin says:

        This. As long as you state in your review that there was a bonus for writing the review then who cares, as long as your review was honest.

    • regis-s says:

      Should have just mentioned that you were given a $500 discount from the dealership for the review.

  10. Hi_Hello says:

    i just read two reviews on amazon now. The highest one and the lowest one.. and I check out the comments for each reviews.

  11. eccsame says:

    China just paid me .12 to write this comment.

  12. kc2idf says:

    It seems spam is up lately, too.

  13. Awesome McAwesomeness says:

    I wonder if there is negative shilling going on with competitors as well.

  14. Dr.Wang says:

    I post a lot of reviews on Yelp. In the merchants main page it clearly states if the merchant is a sponsor. If they are, they get to select which reviews stay and which ones go. So any sponsor merchant reviews cannot be trusted to be accurate. But they are clearly labeled.

  15. Chasing Headless Chickens says:

    Hello, Harriet Klausner!

  16. ovalseven says:

    XYZ Systems is a completely fair and honest company. They do excellent work for their clients and their service is well worth the price. If you ever need to boost your product’s rating, give them a try. You won’t be sowry!

  17. CubeRat says:

    I use reviews often, but I only look at the bad reviews. The bad ones tell me what’s wrong, and I can decide from there if I am willing to overlook the problem or not.

    ie, when I looked for a new coffee maker. I saw review that said people liked one, except it tended to leak water. Felt this was rather important in a coffee maker, so didn’t buy. Another one had a review that said it was noisy when brewing coffee – don’t care, trying to wake up; so I got that one.

  18. scoosdad says:

    How is Angie’s List in this regard? I was looking at their signup just today and wondered how they prevent bogus reviews. I suppose the annual membership fee itself somewhat deter spamming of the reviews.

    For anyone who’s already a member, how can I, as a potential member but without access to the reviews, tell if there are enough significant reviews for providers in my local area to make it worth the expense of membership? I’m not exactly in the middle of a major metropolitan area but I’m not in the sticks, either.

    • BurtReynolds says:

      That is the idea, but I’ve never known anyone who joined to tell me if it works.

      • balderdashed says:

        I was a member of Angie’s list for quite a well, and if I was suddenly looking for somebody to fix my roof or repair my deck, I might join again. But that said, I can only give them a lukewarm recommendation. The problem is, some contractors are really good at working Angie’s list — but that doesn’t necessarily mean they do the best work. And often (at least in the Mpls/St. Paul area) there are so very few reviews for companies in any one category, that you really don’t have meaningful data. (Would you buy a book that three people liked and one person didn’t — maybe the three are the authors relatives.) In my limited experience talking with about two dozen companies on Angie’s list and hiring a couple of them, Angie’s list is better than nothing, but sometimes not by much. Also, many of the contractors listed tend to be on the higher end of the price scale, but while their marketing may be superior to competitors, the range and quality of their services may not be. Overall, I’d much rather rely on the recommendations of neighbors, coworkers, or others I know who have found somebody really good to remodel their kitchen, etc., and whose standards I know and opinions I trust.

  19. Fumanchu says:

    I have always just assumed this was going on all the time anyways. When i look at product reviews I look for trends, throw out the outliers and ignore those reviews that are written by the happiest person on the whole world.

    Works pretty well.

    I still think that by and large there is safety in numbers, i.e. 300 reviews. Thats a ton of reviews and if they are all with in basically the same range it should come out 4 star range.

    [on a side note reviews tend to be either really bad or really good so I tend to shy away from things that are rated 3 stars, if its rated 2 stars or less I won’t buy it and if its 4 stars or more I will highly consider it]

  20. momtimestwo says:

    I hate when I look for reviews on products that really only another mom would buy (a particular lunchbox or cloth diaper) and and at the end of the review they say they didn’t buy the product, but the company provided them with it to review. And of course their review is “honest”.

  21. sirwired says:

    What’s a QQ Group?

  22. Robertinark says:

    I take everything on the internet with a grain of salt.

  23. caradrake says:

    You, too, can get paid for writing reviews!

    Or at least, I’ve seen requests for such things on microworkers. I’ve always thought they require too much time – I stick with the easy stuff.

  24. catastrophegirl chooses not to fly says:

    domestic shills are still happening too.
    the “author” who ripped off my entire former website and posted it as an ebook on amazon used what i suspect is their other nom de plume or their grandmother to write a glowing review for it on amazon [look quickly, amazon just agreed that it’s a copyright violation and said it will be pulled within 2-3 business days!]

    the review for it was by C. A. Zraik which you can see on this page for the free edition from smashwords of the same book, shows that Smith and Smith also published a book by C. A. Zraik

    even without this i’ve become skeptical of online reviews of anything. we’ve all seen how an internet mob can overwhelm a place with fake negative reviews [see: anti lesbian wedding dress shop]

  25. ldillon says:

    Why don’t they just block reviews from the offending IP address blocks? It would seem that there would be a statistically anomalous amount of (positive?) reviews from APNIC network blocks.

  26. doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

    I found this article by Chris Morran to be help and well thought out. I would read again and will recommend Consumerist to all my friends and families. Especial was the wonderful photos and user guide provide to help with the article.

  27. Mozz says:

    Prime example, Abe’s of Maine, but they are located in NJ. They shill so bad i think they require their employees to write reviews when they are not out on the floor selling. They will also reply to any bad comments you write. Rule #163, don’t buy any online appliance or electronics if it in NJ or NY, no matter how good the price is, unless you want your phone to ring trying to upsell you “real” shipping or “accessories”(which aren’t included in the model you want,such as lenses, battery chargers,etc.etc).

    • sirwired says:

      This isn’t entirely true; there are several NYC merchants that are trustworthy. B&H is the king of NYC camera stores (and probably the finest camera store in the world), Adorama is nearly as good, and J&R is a decent general-purpose electronics retailer.

  28. gman863 says:

    China? Are the reviews written in Engrish?

    “Glorious fireworks frenzy erupt in mouth from taste use of reviewed item.”

  29. Zombolouge says:

    The best thing to do is go read all the negative reviews. If they all have something in common, or multiple people are complaining about the same thing, you can bet they are honest and that it is an actual problem with the product.

  30. skakh says:

    This is 100 percent correct. And, in my experience, the worst site for consumer reviews is On other sites (Yelp, Insider Pages, Edmunds, etc), many dealers will have ratings of 2 (perhaps 3) stars out of five, based on customer reviews. Invariably, on Dealerrater, those same dealers will have ratings of 4 or 5. Reading the Dealerrater posted reviews it is apparent most are too well written to be from customers. Obviously, something ain’t right.

  31. balderdashed says:

    So if a company really screwed me, could I hire some Chinese shills at 13 cents a pop to post some negative reviews saying the same company ripped them off? At that rate, for thirteen bucks I might be able to find 100 fake customers to say the company’s product or service had ruined their lives — given them nightmares, insomnia, hemorrhoids, you name it. Of course, I would never do such a thing, but it sounds tempting. Certainly, those companies that had paid for positive reviews would have no legitimate reason to object.

  32. BurtReynolds says:

    In my experience, they aren’t too hard to pick out. Often they exhibit rather poor English and as another post mentioned, they will state the entire product’s “official” name rather than a more generic term because they are being paid to shill that exact product. “I loved my purchase of Tuscan Whole Milk 64 oz.” rather than “Tuscan makes great milk”.

  33. Razor512 says:

    It would be better to simply use the community to screen reviews and report fake ones.

    eg if you suspect a canned response, google a few lines from the review and see if it shows up in multiple areas. If a review is canned, then report it and have a moderator take the fake review down and ban accounts that keep making fake reviews.

    Sites like amazon require you to make a purchase before you can review anything so 30 cents will not be worth it, especially if fake review accounts are getting banned.

    It is easy to spot fake reviews.

    if the review provides no real info on the product most fake ones are basically advertisements for the product.

    While a fake reviewer can basically take bits and pieces of other positive reviews and paraphrase them into their own review, then it is harder to spot but it also requires a considerable more amount of time and work, (more than what most people are willing to do for 10-30 cents)

    For 10-30 cents you can bet that most reviews will be canned responses.

  34. simonvii says:

    Three words: Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. It’s not just China. People are paying people pennies to do it in the U.S. as well.

  35. topgun says:

    I wanted to find an honest review of a piece of software called FixCleaner. After looking at 4 pages of a Google search not a one of them was legitimate. I figured if the software was really that good it would speak for itself. No sale.

  36. Cor Aquilonis says:

    The Consumerist’s Chris Morran makes only posts of highest quality and they are worthwhile of your time. The content was exactly as promised and relevant to my interests. I would recommend The Consumerist’s Chris Morran to anyone. Highly recommended! Five stars!

  37. theblackdog says:

    This is why when I google “[product name] review” and all I get are a bunch of link-farming or fake review sites, I know not to buy that product.