As reported by the New York Times earlier today, an Amazon merchant known as VIP Deals issued a letter to all customers that purchased the Vipertek black leather, case folio cover designed for the newly released Kindle Fire. As detailed in the correspondence here, the merchant offered a full refund of the $10 case in exchange for a review on Amazon. While the letter didn’t specifically ask for a positive review, it stated “Please share your experience to help others learn more about the specific features and qualities of the product, what you liked about it and the benefits to owning the product.” Later in the document, the seller went on to state “Please also rate your 5-star experience, we strive to earn 100% perfect perfect ‘FIVE-STAR’ scores from you!” The letter was dated December 16, 2011.

By late January, approximately 92 percent of the 335 product reviews were five stars along with glowing accolades within the text of each review. Only a handful of reviewers made their displeasure of the bribe known within the reviews. According to three customers interviewed by the Times, the letter was packaged with the product during shipment. According to the Times, a representative for VIP Deals denied that the letters were included within each package. However, the merchant had received nearly 5,000 positive reviews on Amazon which rounded out to a 4.9 star rating. 

The bland, form letter design of the correspondence likely allowed the merchant to include the bribe within all VIP Deals products sold on Amazon. After the Times sent Amazon a copy of the letter, the retail giant started deleting all reviews created for the product. Eventually, Amazon removed all products sold by the merchant and ultimately banned the seller from the marketplace.

According to Amazon’s guidelines, merchants are forbidden from offering monetary incentive to create product reviews. However, this marketing scheme allowed VIP Deals to quickly become the top seller of Kindle Fire cases and Amazon definitely profited by the increase in sales over the two-month time period. If Amazon was completely oblivious to VIP Deals operation, the online retailer definitely needs to improve its ability to discover and punish these types of merchants.  

This isn’t the first time that a seller or brand has attempted to influence the Amazon review system. During late January 2009, networking and peripheral gear maker Belkin was busted using the Amazon-owned Mechanical Turk service to purchase positive reviews for 65 cents each. Mechanical Turk workers were directed to mark negative reviews as unhelpful and create a positive review with a story regarding the product. After an investigation, it became evident that Belkin business development representative Michael Bayard was responsible for the post. After Belkin president Mark Reynoso apologized for the incident and condemned the unethical nature of the scheme, Bayard’s employment ended at Belkin during February 2009 according to his LinkedIn page.

Pointed out by Laura Owen at paidContent.org during June 2011, consumers should also be wary of the Top 1000 Reviewers on Amazon. According to the article, people within the Top 1000 are often courted with free products from various brands. This group of elite reviewers makes calculated choices on what to accept for review as the outcome of the review could easily alter their elite status. For instance, giving a poor review to a well-liked product may result in many “not helpful” ratings. In addition, the top reviewers that do not like a free product are often encouraged by the company not to post a review. 

Covered during mid-2011, a group of researchers at Cornell are working on a computer algorithm that can tell if a review is fake. Designed to point out the fake reviews created by freelancers at Fiverr and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, researchers found the algorithm was able to knock out 90 percent of fake reviews during initial testing. The group is continuing to perfect the system and has fielded requests from Amazon, Hilton and TripAdvisor regarding their progress.