How to tell if an online product review is real or fake

December 3, 2014 15:16 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed:

How can I tell if an online review of a product is real or fake?

Consumer Ed says: 

Considering how easy it is for anyone to post an online review for potential customers to see, you’re right to be skeptical about the reliability of online product reviews.  Businesses understand that consumers’ purchase decisions are often swayed by user-generated online reviews.  Unfortunately, this has led some businesses to post positive reviews of their own products or services, and negative reviews of competitors’, while pretending to be real customers.  Other businesses have even incentivized consumers to write fake reviews in return for payment or discounts.  The Federal Trade Commission has tried to minimize fake reviews by imposing fines on those who post and/or pay for fake reviews.  The incentive to fabricate phony critiques remains high because the likelihood of getting caught is still unfortunately low.

This Office has also pursued such parties for this kind of false advertising. However, it is often very difficult to distinguish between a legitimate review and a fraudulent review.  Many sites, like Amazon and Yelp, use multiple methods of analysis to detect fake reviews.  This helps to a degree, but is not foolproof.  However, there are other things you can do to filter through the fake reviews on your own:

Compare reviews not only within a site, but across different websites.  Read a lot of reviews to form an opinion about the site and decide whether it's trustworthy.  Then, compare reviews of the same product on other sites to determine an overall trend of reviews for a product.  You can't necessarily trust a handful of bad reviews or glowing reviews, but trends are much harder to fake.

Compare reviews by the same reviewer. Look at other reviews by the same reviewer to help you decide how much trust to put in the opinions of that person.  Be wary of "one-time" or "first time" reviewers. Reviews by people who are verified by the site are more trustworthy than reviews by anonymous reviewers.  Anonymous reviews are far more suspect than a review that tells you who wrote it with brief biographical information.  Try to verify if the reviewer has actually purchased a product (e.g., an Amazon reviewer’s “Verified Purchaser” status indicates that the review was posted by someone who has actually purchased the product being reviewed through the site).

Be watchful for similar wording on reviews.  Legitimate reviewers usually speak specifically about their individual experience with the product, and discuss things like performance, reliability, and overall value.  So, if the reviews mainly list off product features, or if there are a number of reviews that use similar wording to describe the product, the reviews could be fake.

Be skeptical about "extreme" reviews. 
If a reviewer makes over-the-top, extremely positive or negative comments, that should raise your suspicions.  Generally, most people will list one or two things they liked, along with something they may have been surprised by (whether positively or negatively).  But when the reviewer uses terms like "absolute worst" and "best ever," it’s worth checking out the reviewer before taking what he/she says as the gospel. In general, read reviews less for whether they give a product five stars or one star, and more for the specific information they give about the reviewer’s experience with the product. 

Check the business reputations of all merchants. Organizations such as the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org) and agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov) maintain information about at least some reviewers and reviewed products.

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Store sold me a rug for wrong price and now wants more money

July 2, 2014 22:35 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed: 

I purchased a rug from a major department store for around $300. The receipt said that all sales were final. I later received a phone call from the store manager asking me to return the rug, explaining that the associate had made an error and the rug should have cost $2,000. I was unaware of the pricing discrepancy when I purchased the rug.  Am I obligated to return the rug at this point?

Consumer Ed says: 

First, we want to remind our readers that we do not give legal advice, but here is our take on the situation... This sounds like a completed transaction and a genuine mistake with no intentional wrongdoing, in which case it would ultimately be your decision whether to return the rug (in light of the salesperson’s error).

The sale of the rug appears complete: you paid the requested price and they gave you the product, the rug.  Moreover, the sales receipt prepared by the merchant includes an “all sales final” provision.  A sales receipt is an acknowledgement of payment, but it can also serve as evidence of an agreement between the seller and the buyer.  This is especially true where the receipt includes additional terms beyond the price that are binding on the parties like, for example, an “all sales final” notice, such as the one found on your receipt.  This is a term that the seller required by putting it on the back of his sales receipt.  Assuming the seller didn’t retain the right to cancel the contract after accepting your payment and handing over the rug, the “all sales final” clause could be binding on both parties.

Notably, under federal and state laws, sellers are prohibited from using misleading or deceptive acts or practices when selling their goods or services.  This can include making false oral or written representa¬tions, failure to perform promised services, failure to meet warranty obligations, using bait and switch techniques (advertising a product without the intent to sell it but rather to lure a customer in and switch them to a more expensive item), or making misleading price claims.

However, here it looks like there was a genuine pricing error and no deception took place.  The salesperson mistakenly sold you the rug at a lower price than the true sales price.  You presumably thought it was a good deal and had no reason to know of the salesperson’s error.  Generally, assuming the buyer and seller are both innocent of wrongdoing, and the purchase agreement doesn’t specify what to do if there is a mistake such as a pricing error, the seller will bear the burden of his mistake.  In this case, that means the department store would be responsible for its error unless you choose to return the rug. Note that you may get some push-back from the store if you keep the rug, so you might want to consult with a lawyer.

Tips:

  • KEEP your receipts, especially for higher ticket items. This is the best proof of what you bought, how much you paid and when the transaction occurred.  
  • READ the receipt, purchase agreement and/or any posted disclosures for terms and conditions that may apply to the purchase, such as an “all sales final” provision. These terms and conditions outline what your rights are.
  • ONLINE SHOPPERS BEWARE. If you’re shopping online, read through the company’s online terms and conditions carefully before making a purchase. Often online sellers will have a term regarding pricing errors due to computer glitches which allows them to cancel a transaction with no further obligation to you, even if you receive an order confirmation or shipping notice.

 

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Can a merchant require my address when I'm making an in-store purchase?

January 21, 2014 20:16 by Consumer Ed

Dear Consumer Ed:

I am tired of being asked for personal information when I am simply trying to buy something. What does Georgia Law say concerning merchants "requiring" an address when you are making a purchase or trying to return or exchange merchandise?  I am asking this with regards to actually being at a place of business and NOT shopping online.  Today I tried to exchange an article of clothing and was told by the sales person that I had to provide my address in order to conduct the exchange. Is this legal?

Consumer Ed Says:

Georgia law generally doesn't prohibit merchants from asking that consumers provide personal information in order to complete a transaction, with some very limited exceptions. When a customer pays for a purchase by personal check, the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act specifies the information a business may collect for identification purposes. It states that a merchant may not imprint or copy the customer's credit or debit card number as a condition of purchase by check. However, the merchant may still:

  • Request a driver's license number.
  • Ask to see a credit or debit card as a form of identification.
  • Record on the check the type of credit card and expiration date.
  • Record a credit card number and expiration date, if the credit card company has agreed to guarantee checks as a special service to its cardholders.
  • Record an address and telephone number.

Ultimately, a merchant may require that you provide your address in order to make a purchase or to process a return or exchange of goods at their business. Businesses often ask customers for their personal information for a variety of reasons, including: to keep track of the customer's purchases under the merchant's loyalty rewards program; to build customer purchasing profiles to help them better market their products and services to you; or to create "return profiles" that catalog and analyze returns in their store to detect fraud and organized retail crime.

Merchants are free to request information as a requirement of transacting business with them, but ultimately the decision to do business with a particular merchant is up you, the customer. So the decision whether to share your personal information with a merchant or to withhold your personal information is in your hands. A business may decide not to provide you with a service or benefit if you don't provide your information. However, you should discuss any concerns you have with the merchant - they may be willing to waive the requirement that you give them your personal information or that may be able to allay your concerns by explaining how they use your personal information and how they ensure your information is kept private.

A few tips

  • Ask questions. If a merchant asks for personal information that you feel uncomfortable disclosing, don't be afraid to ask questions, such as:
    • Why do you need it?
    • What will you do with it?
    • What authority do you have to require that I provide it?
    • What are the consequences if I don't provide it?
    • How will you protect my personal information?
    • How will you dispose of my personal information once you're finished using it?
  • Look for disclosure notices. Often merchants will have a notice at the cash register or on your sales receipt indicating the merchant's terms of purchase and terms for returning merchandise, including what information you may be asked to give them in order to complete a transaction or make a return. Review these notices carefully before you make a purchase so that you are not caught unaware later.
  • Don't be afraid to say no. If you do not feel secure sharing your personal information with a particular merchant, or have concerns that your information will not be kept confidential, don't risk it. Take your business elsewhere.

 

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