Fake glowing reviews, intended to boost consumer confidence and hopefully increase sales, have long been a problem for popular websites that rely on such reviews. Now, one of those major websites has decided to take legal action. Last week, Amazon filed a lawsuit in Washington state court against four websites that Amazon alleges publish fraudulent reviews in exchange for payment.

What unprecedented steps has Amazon decided to take to combat these alleged fake reviews?

In the suit, Amazon accuses the defendant websites of violating Washington’s Consumer Protection Act, the federal Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, and related false advertising. Amazon has also alleged trademark infringement in connection with displaying Amazon’s logo and using domain names that are confusingly similar to that of Amazon.  The suit claims that the owner of the websites told his customers that they could ship empty boxes to trick Amazon into thinking that the reviewers were trustworthy, verified buyers in order to evade Amazon’s detection systems. Amazon further alleges that the defendants would post fraudulent four or five star reviews in exchange for $19-$22 per review. Amazon maintains that while small in number, the phony reviews threaten to undermine the integrity of its marketplace insofar as the fake reviews negatively impact sellers on the site that do not pay for reviews, dilute Amazon’s brand and threaten to undermine consumer trust in the marketplace as a whole.

Be Wary of the Perils of Peddling Fake Reviews

Amazon’s lawsuit would appear to open up a new legal front in the fight against fraudulent online reviews. We have previously written of the risks presented to companies that feature paid endorsements of products that are otherwise presented as independent and impartial reviews. Such practices have drawn the scrutiny of federal regulators. Advertisers should be wary of the conflation of marketing and blogs, social media, and customer review websites, given the increasing vigilance of companies and regulators in policing reviews and testimonials that extoll the virtues of a given product.   Under the circumstances, online marketplaces should always make sure that disclosures are used to communicate that particular reviewers are being paid, or otherwise stand to gain by providing testimonials.