A 40-year-old mother from Rome used to have no problem providing for her two young children until the coronavirus struck last year and she lost her job, pushing her into the murky, multi-million-euro business of fake Amazon reviews.
She stumbled across the booming industry whilst searching online for ways to make money.
Tens of thousands of people have joined dedicated Amazon channels on the Telegram instant messaging site where anonymous intermediaries sign people up to write glowing five-star reviews for products in return for financial reward.
“It might not be very ethical or legal, but it has allowed me to indulge in a few things … that I couldn’t otherwise afford,” said the mother in Rome, declining to give her name to prevent being chased off Amazon’s Italian site.
Amazon has become increasingly popular in Italy, as elsewhere, as the country went into repeated lockdowns. While specific sales figures are not available, e-commerce in goods in Italy was estimated to have risen 31% over the past year by Milan Politecnico University.
Amazon said it went to great efforts to try to prevent false reviews from being published and monitored all existing comments for signs of abuse. It added that it was ready to ban or take legal action against anyone caught violating its rules.
“We are relentless in our efforts to protect the integrity of customer reviews, and we will continue to innovate to ensure customers can trust that every review on Amazon is authentic and relevant,” it said.
The Seattle-based giant, which made its first foray into Italy nearly a decade ago, opened two distribution centres here in 2020 and plans to add three additional sites this year.
One 14-year-old boy from Calabria, the toe of Italy’s boot, said a number of Chinese firms put together online teams that operate within the crowded Telegram channels, which have names like “Free Product Amazon Reviews”.
These intermediaries seek out people willing to buy the products on Amazon they want promoting and once positive reviews go online, the purchases are reimbursed via paypal.
The boy said intermediaries like him are paid between 2.0-2.5 euros ($2.37-$2.96) per write-up they commission, enabling him to make between 300 and 400 euros per month. “That isn’t bad at my age for answering a few chats,” he said, declining to give his name.
Fake reviews can lift a product’s rating, giving it greater visibility and luring more buyers, according to a study published last year by the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles.
“The phenomenon of reviews in exchange for free products has seen an absurd surge in recent months,” said a 37-year-old Sicilian, adding that he re-sold dozens of such freebies each month to boost his earnings.
The extra cash is a welcome relief for many in a country which has just suffered its worst recession since World War Two, with 444,000 jobs lost in 2020.
Consumer groups say Amazon should do more to protect shoppers from being misled by the review scam.
“Amazon claims to be doing something and every now and then it deletes a few tens of thousands of reviews, but the truth is that there are millions of them,” said Massimiliano Dona, head of Italy’s National Union of Consumers.
“The reality is that the market is being manipulated,” he told Reuters.