Crackdown On Fake Online Reviews Leads To 40 'Please Explain' Letters

More than 40 businesses across Australia have been asked to prove glowing testimonials that appear on the websites are real in a major crackdown by Australian Consumer Law (ACL) regulators and their state-based Fair Trading counterparts.

NSW topped the list, with 28 businesses issued “substantiation notices” in the last six months, but only 18 responding in a satisfactory manner to prove the testimonials are genuine.

FIG JAM photo:Shutterstock

As a result, three warning letters were issued, two businesses were referred for investigation by Fair Trading, one amended its website, another requested an extension and the response by one business is currently under review.

NSW Fair Trading Minister Stuart Ayres said false testimonials breached Australian Consumer Law. “Accurate customer reviews and testimonials play an important role in online consumers’ decision making and consumers are entitled to expect reliable and independent information about a product or service,” he said.

Across 11 markets surveyed in the National Testimonials Project, three sectors – restaurant, real estate and alternative health care – were identified as high risk for fake online reviews. It’s believed a prominent restaurant, funeral parlour and building company were among those caught out in the crackdown.

Mr Ayres said the following are warning signs for fake reviews:

  1. Claims of initial disinterest: Testimonials claiming the consumer was originally disinterested in a product but after use “saw the light” and now wishes to share their positive experience.
  2. Competitor spruiking: Negative reviews criticising a specific product, but then spruiking a competitor’s product.
  3. Duplication: Publication of the same testimonial multiple times, or the publication of the same testimonial under a different customer alias.
  4. Discount codes: Customer reviews that give a discount code, or inform a consumer where they can purchase a product or service.
  5. Marketing speak: Testimonials that read like a press release or an advertisement.
  6. Repetition: Reviews that repeatedly cite the entire name and model of the product.
  7. Over the top language: Reviews that include exaggerated praise, empty adjectives and urge consumers to “go out and buy the product right now.”
  8. Five-star testimonials: Unqualified five star reviews with no specifics on the product or service.
  9. Minimal reviews but overwhelmingly positive: Websites where only a few reviews are provided, but of which all are positive.

In a separate project, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission held its own investigation last year into fake and misleading online reviews, issuing a set of guidelines for business to deal with the issue.

The ACCC says businesses that don’t remove fake reviews are breaching the Competition and Consumer Act, adding that misleading conduct includes asking family and friends to write reviews without disclosing the personal connection in the post.

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