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How to spot fake online product reviews

You hear the advice all the time: Before you buy something, especially a big-ticket item, go online and check the user reviews. It makes sense to learn what people who bought a product think about it.

But can these comments be trusted? In most cases they can, but not always. Some are written by manufacturers, retailers or salespeople trying to drum up business. Others are posted by people who are paid to write phony reviews.

Fake reviews not easy to spot

Chances are you think you can spot a review that isn’t legit. But a recent study by researchers at Cornell University found that most of us aren’t very good at it.

“We have these very strong feelings that we can tell when someone is lying, but the research suggests we’re actually quite bad at it,” says Jeff Hancock, an associate professor of communication at Cornell.

To prove this point, the study lists two reviews of a Chicago hotel. Which one is real? Which one is fake? (Note: in both examples, the typos appear as they did online.)

1. I have stayed at many hotels traveling for both business and pleasure and I can honestly stay that The James is tops. The service at the hotel is first class. The rooms are modern and very comfortable. The location is perfect within walking distance to all of the great sights and restaurants. Highly recommend to both business travelers and couples.

2. My husband and I stayed at the James Chicago Hotel for our anniversary. This place is fantastic! We knew as soon as we arrived we made the right choice! The rooms are BEAUTIFUL and the staff very attentive and wonderful!! The area of the hotel is great, since I love to shop I couldn’t ask for more!! We will definatly be back to Chicago and we will for sure be back to the James Chicago.

Are you ready? The first one is real. The second is fake. Clearly, a good shill writer can fake you out.

That’s why Hancock says don’t waste your time trying to spot what he calls “opinion spam.” How widespread is the problem? Hancock believes between 5 and 10 percent of user-written reviews are deceptive. Not an outrageous percentage, but clearly a real problem.

Hancock says you can reduce the chance of reading phony reviews by going to sites (such as that only accept reviews from people who have actually purchased the products.

How to for the warning signs

No matter where you look, you should “be skeptical and take everything with a grain of salt,” cautions Andrea Woroch, consumer savings adviser for the website Coupon Sherpa. “You have to dissect those reviews to make sure they don’t have false information.”

Christine Frietchen is editor-in-chief of, a website that recommends products based on user and expert reviews. She says fake reviews are often “over the top” and urge you to “go out and buy the product right now.”

Frietchen doesn’t worry much about misspelled words. That’s a common problem with user reviews. For her, the red flags are glowing comments that make the product sound perfect in every way and lots of exclamation marks.

“Look for detail in the review,” she advises. “Somebody who is not very knowledgeable about the product, someone who doesn’t use specific examples or tell you how they used it or how they tried to use it and it didn’t work out, those could possibly be fakes.”

The Consumerist, a website run by the folks behind Consumer Reports, lists four warning signs that online reviews have been written by corporate shills:

  • They have zero caveats and are full of empty adjectives and pure glowing praise with no downsides.
  • All are left within a short period of time of each other.
  • They’re mainly a list of product features. (Real users talk more about performance, reliability, and overall value.)
  • The reviewer’s names are variations of one another, such as happykat1234, happykat7593, happykat6687.

Chris Morran, senior editor at The Consumerist, says when it comes to reviews of electronic products, watch out for marketing language – very specific terms or model numbers that the average person wouldn’t use.

“For instance, if you’re looking for a modem and you see ‘explosive speed.’ No one talks like that, even if they love the product.”

So what should you do?

Look for reviews from experts and consumers. Don't rely on a review from one site or even lots of opinions for one site. Check a number of sites and you'll get a more balanced view. For expert reviews I rely onConsumer ReportsandCNET(for electronics). Other sites you might want to check: Buzzillions, Epinions andConsumerSearch.