Jessica — not her real name — has spent well over $15,000 on Amazon this year, buying everything from Halloween decorations to a queen-size inflatable mattress. She's purchased over 700 products, including three vacuum cleaners, six desk chairs, and no fewer than 26 pairs of earbuds. And even though most of the products are cheaply made, she’s given each a 5-star review. The twentysomething who lives on the East Coast isn’t a bad judge of quality — the companies that sell these products on Amazon reimburse her for the purchases.
Although the loot may be free to her, Jessica’s habit does come with a cost — if you’ve considered buying an Instant Pot recently, her 5-star review, complete with photos and a video, might have nudged you toward a knockoff instead of the real thing. It’s entirely fake, but Jessica told BuzzFeed News she doesn’t think she’s gaming the system; she’s trying to help brands grow their businesses in Amazon’s massive marketplace. “I’m just a pawn in their marketing scheme,” she said.
Third-party sellers know what it takes to make it on Amazon: Get good reviews and a high search ranking. But attracting genuine customers is tough, so some sellers use a reliable cheat — bribes. Because of Amazon’s vast scale, inscrutable algorithms, and capricious enforcement of its own rules, unscrupulous sellers and paid shills largely get away with it.
Amazon has banned giving away free products in exchange for reviews, so Jessica requested anonymity out of fear that the company would suspend her account.
Sellers reach out to Jessica through targeted Facebook ads touting free items or dedicated review groups with thousands of members, and give her a specific set of instructions to purchase their products on Amazon. After she leaves a 5-star review, the sellers reimburse her via PayPal or an Amazon gift card, and let her keep the items she reviews.
Jessica’s activity, as far as Amazon is concerned, looks legitimate. She makes purchases from her own Amazon account and credit card, so her reviews are labeled as a “verified purchase.” After the sellers confirm Jessica has left a 5-star review, the payment is made out of Amazon’s view. The credit card, an Amazon-branded rewards card, gives Jessica an extra bonus for the purchase. In other words, third-party sellers aren’t the only ones paying her to leave fake reviews and superficially boost sales — Amazon is too.
BuzzFeed News sent Amazon a detailed list of questions about how it polices inauthentic reviews. A company spokesperson responded with the same statement it provided for our Oct. 14 report on Amazon sellers using Facebook chatbots to cheat its review system. The statement noted that the site had prevented more than 13 million attempts to post inauthentic reviews, and that it "took action" against more than 5 million sellers' accounts for review manipulation.
But consultants who work with Amazon’s third-party sellers say that the bad actors continue to exploit blind spots in the system, and do so without virtually any consequences. Meanwhile, Jessica, and many reviewers like her, benefit from the sellers’ willingness to cheat.
A table in the back corner of the dining room of Jessica’s two-family home is buried under a mountain of clutter — a faux leather purse, a vacuum, a salad spinner, a foot spa, and kids’ toys. Bits of miscellany are haphazardly sorted in big plastic bins underneath the rummage. The items on top are Amazon products Jessica hasn’t reviewed yet. The items below the table have already been refunded and are up for grabs by family and friends.
Almost every day, Jessica’s boyfriend of eight years begrudgingly hauls Amazon packages in from the porch. “He hates it,” she told BuzzFeed News. But Jessica proudly points to all the items she's acquired for their new house: “I got our new showerhead, shower organizer, side tables, coat rack, coat hangers. … We would have had to pay for all that stuff.”
After her boyfriend brings them in, Jessica opens the boxes, removes products from their packaging, assembles them, and takes photographs. Later, she’ll write reviews while she and her boyfriend watch TV. Jessica told BuzzFeed News she tries to be thoughtful about what she writes (although never mentions outright that a product is bad) — but no matter what she says, each review receives the same rating: 5 stars.
It’s a lot to keep track of. Jessica is constantly brokering deals with sellers (and, occasionally, hounding them for payment) through email, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger. Many sellers tell her the exact keywords to search for on Amazon to more closely simulate an actual Amazon purchase. The method — searching for a keyword and adding the item to a shopping cart — also elevates the product’s profile in search results.
Sellers instruct Jessica not to review products for at least five to six days after receiving the item to make the review appear more authentic. She meticulously records into an Excel spreadsheet each product, its target review date, the item’s delivery date, whether she’s taken a photo or submitted a review, what she paid, the reimbursement paid by the seller, and the amount she lost or made in the transaction, among other pieces of information.
The spreadsheet helps Jessica make sure she’s on top of due dates and getting paid on time. BuzzFeed News reviewed the document, which showed 117 open orders that hadn’t been refunded yet. A column titled “Total currently out of pocket” — or what she’s still owed — amounted to $2,282.01.
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On Amazon, third-party sellers look for any advantage they can get and, by enlisting customers like Jessica, they can generate seemingly authentic sales and reviews — fast.
Most of the products on Amazon aren’t sold by Amazon itself. Millions of independent third-party sellers use the platform to distribute their wares. Look on any product page and somewhere below the price you’ll likely see: “Sold by [Store Name] and Fulfilled by Amazon.” These merchandisers get access to Amazon’s customers. In turn, the company gets a cut of their sales.
Amazon reported that in 2018, customers spent $160 billion on items from third-party sellers — 58% of all sales on the site. More than 1 million sellers joined Amazon marketplaces around the world that year, according to e-commerce data firm Marketplace Pulse. In this year’s shareholder letter, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote: “Third-party sellers are kicking our first party butt. Badly.”
With thousands of new sellers signing up every day, there is a lot of competition — much of which comes from China. A Wall Street Journal story found that in 2018, a new product from China was uploaded every 1/50th of a second.
That’s why some third-party sellers are willing to give away products for free. Their hope is that, in doing so, they’ll gain a competitive edge that’ll attract more customers.
What Jessica does helps sellers in two ways. First, it bolsters their reviews, which convince customers to buy. It also inflates another consequential Amazon metric: an item’s sales rank, which represents a product’s number of sales compared to similar listings.
The scheme — according to Ryan Flannagan, the CEO of Nuanced Media, a consultancy firm for independent sellers on Amazon — is designed to dupe the site’s algorithm by creating the illusion that a product is flying off the shelves. “As people purchase more, the listing becomes more visible to customers [in a search]. Sales velocity gives the product that flywheel effect,” Flannagan explained.
An Amazon spokesperson said, “Customer reviews do not have a consequential impact on search ranking,” adding that availability and the frequency of sales are also factors.
“The cheapest, easiest way to make money is to cheat.”
While that may be true, reviews have a huge impact on sales, which do affect search ranking, according to John LeBaron, chief revenue officer of Pattern, an e-commerce consulting firm. A study by the firm found that a 1-star increase in a product’s average rating led to a 26% jump in sales.
LeBaron said that a high ranking in a search can be worth tens of thousands of dollars in monthly revenue. A Pattern analysis found that for the search term “men’s sunglasses,” the top five vendors each rake in $60,000 per month on average; the top 10 sellers earn $53,000, and products on the first page make $42,000. “That’s what makes spending money on free products worth it for these blackhat sellers,” LeBaron said.
Attracting genuine customers to a listing is expensive and doesn’t guarantee good reviews. “The cheapest, easiest way to [make money] is to cheat. Unless Amazon takes an aggressive approach, it’s going to continue to flourish,” said LeBaron. “It’s really detrimental to people playing by the rules.”
Jessica doesn’t have many vices. She doesn’t drink or smoke. In her spare time, she goes out to trivia nights, watches movies with friends, and reads. Her childhood best friend, Christina, described her as “very outgoing” and “sweet.”
Her review habit started with a Facebook ad, a common marketing method for sellers’ fake review programs, she said. The ad, which was for free measuring spoons, included a link that opened Facebook Messenger. She clicked and started chatting with the seller. After she received the spoons and wrote a review, the seller promptly sent her a PayPal refund. She was hooked.
“After that, the ads for free stuff just multiplied tenfold,” she said.
Sellers started inviting Jessica to private Facebook groups with names like “Secret Rebate Club” and “AMZ Freebies.” One of the groups has nearly 30,000 members. She now participates in dozens of groups. From other members, who are reviewers themselves, Jessica learned about websites like Hundsonvine and a more selective, referral-only program called Fullyrebate, both of which she now participates in.
“I like getting stuff.”
Jessica said the majority of sellers she messages with are Chinese. They respond to messages only between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Eastern time, which are working hours — 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. — on Beijing time. During Golden Week, a Chinese holiday, the administrators of multiple Facebook pages noted that refunds would not be issued and representatives would not be available to respond to inquiries while they observe the national days of rest. Facebook is technically blocked in China, so sellers access the site using a virtual private network. Occasionally, sellers will go dark for a few days because of issues with their VPN.
Since reviewing the measuring spoon set, Jessica has written about hundreds of products. “I like getting stuff. It’s like Christmas every day here,” she explained. Jessica’s upstairs neighbor recently complimented her new cat water fountain. She responded, “No problem, I’ll get you one.”
Jessica gives away many of the items she reviews, and she has made about $150 by selling products on Facebook Marketplace. She’s donated clothes that don’t fit and handed off the rest to family members or friends. “I like being able to give my friends things without breaking the bank,” she said. The reviewing allows her to regularly treat the people in her life; she hasn’t had to buy a birthday gift all year.
As an Amazon Prime member with an Amazon Chase credit card, Jessica is, ironically, rewarded for exploiting the company’s blind spots. She’s made hundreds of dollars through the Amazon card’s cashback benefit as a result of the purchases, which come at nearly no cost to her.
She receives about $100 in cash rewards every month. She could make more — but some items for review are purchased with Amazon gift cards, which don’t count toward rewards. Jessica plows that money right back into Amazon for her own purchases, typically Kindle books and, most recently, an Instant Pot pressure cooker (not the off-brand version she got for free).
“I really don’t think I’m making money on it at all. I’m pretty sure I’m losing money,” Jessica said while looking over her spreadsheet. “I’m pretty sure I’m at a 10% loss. But I’m okay with it, because I’ve gotten a whole bunch of new stuff.”
Jessica has rated almost every item she has been commissioned 5 stars, except for one, a crossbody purse that shipped with a broken magnet. She rated the purse 3 stars and received a $20 refund from the seller anyway.
But Jessica is conflicted. On the one hand, she sees the Chinese sellers as small business owners who are doing what they have to do to make it on the platform. In chats reviewed by BuzzFeed News, the sellers use language like “This will help our small business out a lot!” and “We’re a small family business selling on Amazon” as an appeal to reviewers.
According to Jessica, a number of the off-brand products that she has reviewed — especially items like clothes and home goods — are perfectly adequate. “It’s their way of marketing,” she said, adding that “the products aren’t necessarily worse than something you’d buy with a name brand on it.”
But sometimes the products are worse, and Jessica still rates them 5 stars. “I haven’t found a thermometer by doing this that works correctly — they all give me different readings,” she said. Jessica is afraid to use the electronic appliances she receives, which often come with incomprehensible instructions written in both English and Chinese. She took photos of one product, a foot spa, without adding water or plugging it in.
Jessica also doesn’t trust health and beauty products on the site, because of her boyfriend, a chemist, who has found toxic ingredients in analyses of unregulated products.
A coworker at Jessica’s day job once asked her about a keratin hair mask she had seen Jessica review. But Jessica hadn’t actually used the mask, and explained how the hustle really works. “She was noticeably disappointed that she trusted the review. I really felt bad!” Jessica said. She offered the coworker her unused bottle.
“I definitely feel like I have to keep [the reviewing] a secret from people who have strong morals,” Jessica added.
But reviewing is becoming too time-consuming and risky (sometimes sellers will disappear without sending her the promised money), so Jessica is starting to find freebies through other channels. Rather than dealing with sellers on an ad hoc basis herself, she now prefers to go through rebate platforms like RebateKey, even if it means waiting for longer periods of time — past the return window — for her money.
Rebate websites offer Amazon products at deep discounts or for free and streamline the process for giveaway seekers like Jessica. The fake purchases increase the item's sales rank, which can help attract more genuine sales. To receive a full refund, she agrees to buy the item on Amazon within a certain time period, submits her order number to the seller as proof of purchase, and, most importantly, promises to not return the item. The websites wait 35 days, after Amazon’s return window closes, to refund Jessica through PayPal, and don’t require a review.
An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s stance on rebate sites, but Chris McCabe, a former Amazon employee turned consultant for sellers, said it’s against the company’s seller code of conduct. McCabe knows this — his clients have had their accounts frozen after using the sites to manipulate an item’s sales rank. (The suspended sellers are required to name the rebate site they used as a part of Amazon's reinstatement process, he said.)
"For honest brands, [the rebate sites] are a devastating loophole," commented James Thomson, another former Amazon employee who is now with Buy Box Experts, a consultancy for sellers.
Even if she’s caught, Jessica said, at least she’ll still be able to shop: “If they catch me, I’ve heard from other people that they wipe your review history but they don’t disable your account.”
Jessica thinks it’s worth the risk. She loves getting free stuff, even when it turns out to be junk: “It’s mostly for the thrill of buying. I haven’t had the need to do any retail therapy all year.”
Through reviewing herself, Jessica now knows that many Amazon reviews are inauthentic. Despite that, she pays for a $119 annual Prime membership and uses the site for personal purchases, separate from her fake reviews. But she doesn’t consider reviews while browsing: “When I see an off-brand product that’s Amazon’s Choice, [that label] doesn’t mean anything to me anymore,” she said.
“Every day, customers on Amazon are being shown things that aren’t true.”
But reviews are meaningful to many Amazon shoppers. Despite the company’s claims of policing millions of bogus reviews, the persistence of Facebook groups dedicated to generating illegitimate reviews of products, the rebate sites, and people like Jessica suggest that many, many more are posted every day. Even savvy customers will have trouble discerning genuine reviews from commissioned ones, and unsuspecting patrons will be duped into buying cheap products with inflated ratings.
Fake reviews and sales immediately penalize honest businesses, but they ultimately hurt the site’s shoppers, Thomson said: “Every day, customers on Amazon are being shown things that aren’t true. They will lose trust in the site.”
Short of shutting down the rebate websites, Thomson thinks that sellers, who flout the rules with impunity, should be kicked off for breaking the rules — but that Amazon also needs to penalize customers like Jessica: “Amazon needs to suffocate the consumer demand for free stuff.” ●