On November 10, 2020, the District of Utah decided a case involving two sellers of supplements, Vitamins Online, Inc. v. Heartwise Inc. d/b/a NatureWise, which, among other things, examined defendant NatureWise’s allegedly manipulated reviews on a major online marketplace. In deciding the case, the court addressed customer reliance on reviews in their purchasing decisions.

NatureWise’s reviews appeared manipulated. For example, on one of NatureWise’s product pages, reviews were posted before the product had launched. Many reviews were from unverified purchasers that appeared within minutes of each other and gave the product 5-star ratings. Notably, 14 unverified 5-star reviews appeared on the product page within 25 minutes of each other and had similar patterns in the titles of the reviews. NatureWise’s other products similarly garnered a substantial number of positive reviews soon after their launch.

NatureWise told its employees to “up vote” good reviews and “down vote” bad reviews, directly affecting which reviews appeared at the top of its products’ pages. NatureWise also asked customers to review other products to lend credibility to their NatureWise product reviews, which in turn would make the marketplace think the NatureWise reviews were legitimate.

In examining Vitamins Online’s Lanham Act claim, the court found that NatureWise manipulated reviews, in direct contravention of the marketplace’s policies, by block-voting on the helpfulness of reviews and, despite denying it, offering free products in exchange for reviews. With the help of three experts, Vitamins Online established that NatureWise’s manipulated reviews were material to customers. Vitamins Online’s survey expert explained that consumers “use, rely upon and trust online reviews to make purchasing decisions,” both in general and specifically on the specific online marketplace. The other two experts authored a joint report analyzing the irregularities in NatureWise’s reviews, which the court found suggested review manipulation.

The court ordered disgorgement of NatureWise’s sales profits from two of its products from 2012 and 2013, totaling just over $9.5 million, plus prejudgment interest, because of its review manipulation and false ingredient claims. The court pointed out that NatureWise undoubtedly benefited from its unlawful actions, “quickly rose to the top of the marketplace’s sales rankings and made millions of dollars in a matter of months despite having no previous experience in the industry.” Ultimately, it can cost you if you manipulate reviews and deceive customers – sometimes as much as $9.5 million.