The Competititon and Markets Authority says it’s to look into reviews on Google and Amazon, and see whether the online giants may have broken consumer law by taking insufficient action to protect users against the misleading content.
In March this year the consumer body Which? reported that a London estate agency - which it declined to name - had used a fake review service set up by the consumer body itself a bid to assess the scale of the problem.
Fake reviews set up by Which? - sold online and claiming to come from a reviewer called Catherine - were bought and used by the London estate agency as well as by some 15 other businesses ranging from a bakery to a massage parlour.
Now the CMA’s latest probe will consider whether Amazon and Google have been doing enough to detect fake and misleading reviews or suspicious patterns of behaviour.
For example, where the same users have reviewed the same range of products or businesses at similar times to each other and there is no connection between those products or businesses – or where the review suggests that the reviewer has received a payment or other incentive to write a positive review.
The CMA will also investigate and, where necessary, remove fake and misleading reviews from their platforms, and impose sanctions on the online platforms.
The authority says fake and misleading reviews have the potential to impact on businesses’ star ratings and how prominently companies and products are displayed to consumers, changing their shopping experience.
In recent years there have been many controversies about allegedly misleading or completely false reviews concerning estate agents.
In 2019 Emoov - under the ownership of PropTech firm Mashroom - removed reviews and endorsements from its website that actually related to the agency when it was owned by another company.
In the same year the Scott Bainbridge Residential Sales and Lettings agency in the Lake District Sid it had been the victim of several negative testimonials posted on Google by people which the firm had no record of dealing with.
And again in 2019 an agency in London was reported to the Advertising Standards Authority after a series of favourable Google reviews, which the complainant alleged had been paid for. At the time an ASA spokesperson said: “The advertiser confirmed that they have removed the reviews and in future will be monitoring their reviews.”
Meanwhile for several years there have been numerous allegations and counter-allegations about the accuracy of reviews about Purplebricks.
Referring to the probe announced at the weekend, Competition and Markets Authority chief executive Andrea Coscelli says: “Our worry is that millions of online shoppers could be misled by reading fake reviews and then spending their money based on those recommendations.
“Equally, it’s simply not fair if some businesses can fake 5-star reviews to give their products or services the most prominence, while law-abiding businesses lose out.
“We are investigating concerns that Amazon and Google have not been doing enough to prevent or remove fake reviews to protect customers and honest businesses. It’s important that these tech platforms take responsibility and we stand ready to take action if we find that they are not doing enough.
“If, after investigating, the CMA considers the firms have broken consumer protection law, it can take enforcement action. This could include securing formal commitments from the firms to change the way they deal with fake reviews or escalating to court action if needed.
“However, the CMA has not reached a view on whether Amazon and Google have broken the law at this stage.”
The CMA’s investigation into fake reviews is part of a broader programme to establishing a new pro-competition regulatory regime for digital markets.