Fake product reviews are wrecking the internet. But help is on the way: From a bodybuilding fake review hunter.
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00:00:00This message comes from planet money sponsor united airlines united's programs make business travel easier and more rewarding for companies of all sizes visit united business products dot com slash npr to explore special offers hello and welcome to planet money i'm kenny malone and i'm helga shellman shellman journalism
00:00:21professor at n yu documentary filmmaker and we've asked you here to join us today because i feel like it's fair to say you've become mildly obsessed with the topic of today's show there might be some truth to that look i'm a journalism professor i think a lot about
00:00:36i worry a lot about fake news and more generally i'm really concerned about trust on the internet and hilda came to us and said before there was fake news before there was the possibility of like fake video and fake audio the world was dealing with a different fake
00:00:52problem yes fake online reviews people have been posting dishonest online fake reviews for years yeah and and this is becoming such a huge problem because like you know i go online to buy a hover board and i don't know if this hoverboard has five stars because it is
00:01:11awesome and i'm gonna cruise around town looking cool or if it has five stars because someone is making up those reviews and in fact when i take it home it's going to set my house on fire but ilka is here with a glimmer of hope for us yes
00:01:25and the glimmer of hope is coming from a totally unexpected place Online bodybuilding community today on the show the story of one weight lifter battling fake reviews on his own website and what happened when he took on amazon dot com support for planet money and the following message
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00:02:05of one eh We're spending a week bringing you stories of cutting edge ideas and new technologies that could change our lives for years to come Tio here are reports from the aspen ideas festival Check out one a wherever you get your podcasts A couple of things to know
00:02:20about tommy noon He lives in reno nevada He likes to juggle weird things so just you know i'll be like in the grocery store and i'll have like an avocado and a onion and a bottle of water Oh that's high stakes Is he dropping avocado You're buying that
00:02:36thing Yeah yeah the story of how tommy started fighting fake reviews Begins around two thousand six tommy was in college at cal poly san luis obispo at the time he was nineteen and was a bit of a gym rat at his peak he could bench press around two
00:02:50hundred forty pounds one day tommy was hanging out with a friend when he says hey do you want the rest of this pre workout pre workout that's like a powdered stimulant you're supposed to take before you hit the gym and it just gives you crazy energy and you
00:03:01can lift mohr and longer and harder you know at least those air the claims just to be clear this is not a steroid in case that's what you're thinking tommy is very against using those anyways tommy's friend is really not happy with the stuff that he purchased and
00:03:15he says to tommy i paid sixty bucks for it and it gives me such bad stomach issues that i it's ruining my workouts it's you know counterproductive if you're not familiar with the supplement world it's not the most tightly regulated world and on top of that back in
00:03:30two thousand six more and more folks we're starting to buy things online like supplements the gears in my head started turning and i started looking up supplement reviews and i i couldn't find anything that was legit i mean it was all just written by the manufacturer they could
00:03:43just tommy saw an opportunity he could built an online review side where bodybuilders give honest feedback about the supplements there putting into that bodies And so tommy got toe work He taught himself some computer coding and he created what he would eventually call supplement reviews dot com before
00:04:00long super chisel dudes were logging on to leave their super honest reviews And look i know not all bodybuilders sound this way but as i read through these reviews i could not not hear them in the voice of the situation from jersey shore just started using this product's
00:04:18got way huge can't complain overall rating eight Yeah you know we couldn't get the real situation but filling in is our very own stace Even x is mary swole stacy vanished and no one knows this You can tell from my voice but i'm you know i'm huge to
00:04:32see how much can you bench press Would you say three hundred pounds seems plausible Like i could probably bench press you kenny Okay Anyway tommy site became a place where bodybuilders could share all kinds of supplement experiences including great successes This literally gives me skin splitting palms No
00:04:50lie I have stretch marks all over and incredible gains overall rating ten maybe more importantly the site was also a place for body builders could tell each other about problematic product i am sure that this will be the last day i take this i have heart palpitations and
00:05:06i'm not sure if tomorrow i will wake up overall rating five overall rating five i don't know i mean it tasted pretty good Okay well not everyone thought that same powder tasted good this stuff give me a strong urge to vomit some sort of strange circus going on
00:05:22in my stomach overall rating one there's a lot of talk of stomach issues yeah and bloating is bloating a big problem yeah yeah yeah body builders were writing reviews and tommy got a referral fee when customers found products they liked through his sight it was going so well
00:05:40for tommy that he decided to just run the side full time Then as it grew it started climbing the ranks and google you know ranking number one for the term supplement reviews must have been a big day the day that happened Yeah but as the website became more
00:05:55and more prominent supplement companies became more and more aware of tommy's site and how their products were being reviewed on incite tommy says that the times maybe getting like twenty five years a day look he wasn't reading every single one of them but he was meeting a lot
00:06:08of them and he started to see these suspiciously positive reviews creeping in this is one for example university proven studies anyone contested product but to have proof that it works is key i absolutely enjoyed the taste especially the grape I also really enjoy the unflavored and the tropical
00:06:26fan It almost reads like a sales pitch and you kind of read it and you think all right was it a rep that wrote this or was it someone that just drank the kool aid of the marketing campaign I never get bloated from it despite i sometimes take
00:06:39two times as much as the serving during and after my workout believe the hype is this product truly delivers upon what it promises the taste of it is very good as well if mixed properly So for tommy these kinds of reviews were sometimes hard to deal with because
00:06:53it sounded like a person from the company had just come in and written this But what if it was someone who had tried the product and really did believe the hype and that's the problem with online reviews in a nutshell it's almost impossible to tell from the content
00:07:06alone if the reviews fake or not But tommy knew if a company was coming in and pretending to be a regular bodybuilder who i happen to love their product the entire idea of his website would fall apart so i would really have to do a bunch of investigative
00:07:21work on each one to really see where it originated and whether it was from the company or not so tommy goes to work basically the first thing i check out is the email address that they used to register for the site did were they dumb enough to use
00:07:34the company email address that happens sometimes yes it didn't take tommy long to realize that these companies were coming in and basically there were just writing press releases and it kept happening These fake reviews were flooding in and starting to overwhelm the real reviews and i just thought
00:07:52it's not fair that you know people that actually leave feedback that is you know real and honest are getting silenced Tommy took all this time and created this place honest feedback and now it was just being turned into the exact opposite Yeah yeah well it's my you know
00:08:08it was my work is my life's work and ah it's just it's it's painful to see somebody just disrespected like that in the name of of money tommy site is pretty small site in the grand scheme of things but he started to wonder like if this is happening
00:08:22to supplement reviews dot com i wonder how big of a problem this is at other sites so he went into the belly of the beast of online shopping amazon dot com and i looked at this testosterone booster that had five hundred in sixty reviews it was actually five
00:08:36hundred eighty reviews tommy starts to scan through a little bit and his fake review spidey senses are going bonkers and he's like okay i'm going to inspect every single one of these reviews it's going to be a lot of work and i'm gonna need my special pandora station
00:08:52for this based off of ah song from my column deadmau five but other people call him dead mouse sir it's called take care of the proper paperwork is the name of the song thiss certainly must be in the top ten songs named after paperwork don't you think Yes
00:09:11there's a mind numbing sound of bureaucracy that is pretty accurate so tommy is going through every single review and essentially asking himself how do i know i can trust this I've got excel spreadsheet open and i got amazon and i've got like five hundred tabs open on amazon
00:09:28and i'm sitting there Just look at the next review tally updated look at the next review tally up and as he does this he starts to learn the tricks of online fake reviewers some of them are not so tricky for example one review he noticed there was a
00:09:41before and an after picture before super skinny guy after super ripped tommy does a reverse image search and he finds the earliest example of the photo unvetted and i messaged that user on reddit and i said hey did you also use this image for review And they said
00:09:57no so best it yeah a stolen before and after picture obvious silly fake as he investigates tommy's also starting to notice that some suspicious reviewers have almost like an m o that he can identify and he starts naming these different types of questionable reviewers one category at the
00:10:16brand monogamous so these are people that only review products from one company over and over again Sure maybe that person really likes that company or maybe that person works for that company Another fake reviewer profile the one hit wonders these are people who review one thing and then
00:10:37never review anything again I mean obviously there are people that just review one thing that's totally ah normal thing that happens but if it happens a lot and if those one hit wonders or giving the product of five star across the board then you know again maybe there's
00:10:51something unnatural about that Yeah like if this testosterone booster had ah bunch of one hit wonders that we're all really positive That is pretty all but the most unnatural pattern tommy found was this suspicious flood of positive reviews around the exact same time you know it was like
00:11:08three days of you know this super high volume where i think like thirty percent of the reviews were submitted and that's fishy because it is way more reviews than any other three day stretch and they're really positive reviews so it looks like maybe tommy says somebody paid for
00:11:24a bunch of fake reviews around that time The way this sometimes works is that a seller might want to boost their rankings they want to sell more product and then eat more positive reviews so their sites where they can buy these fake reviews but then those positive reviews
00:11:40all post around the same time And so for tommy after reading through all those reviews learning the tricks of the fake review trade what percentage of those five hundred eighty reviews did he think were tainted or biased in some way Probably all of them like nearly one hundred
00:11:57percent or maybe one hundred percent he are something is wrong with them So tommy was on this mission to clean up the fake reviews on his own website and they looked at amazon and he finds out even amazon has this gigantic problem of b s reviews not only
00:12:15that if he ever wants to go on amazon and buy something again he's realizing he's goingto have to spend hours going review by review to figure out what is even trustworthy or i could write a computer program to do all this in seconds access these pages automatically pull
00:12:33the data and give me you know a much better picture of the reviews and i'm sitting there thinking like and if i wrote that computer program to do all this in seconds i could point it at any product And so tommy newman went backto work and in essence
00:12:46he coded a version of himself an internet review detective that can help any of us pull up in item on amazon and cut so all the b s reviews to find just the good ones He started a new website that he called review meta dot com and after
00:13:02the break we'll go shopping with it Support for this podcast is brought to you by discover card and get your free credit score card with your fico credit score it's available to everyone even if you're not a customer learned mohr had discovered dot com slash credit score card
00:13:18limitations apply whether it's athlete protests the muslim travel ban gun violence school reform or just the music let's give a new life right now Race is this subtext to so much of the american story and on coats which we make that subtext text you could listen to us
00:13:35on npr one or wherever you get your podcasts All right helga show me how review meta can help me get over my fake review anxiety Kenny what do you need Um i just was on vacation and my phone died four times because i do not actually do not
00:13:52have any iphone cables anymore God so you're going to amazon and you put in iphone cables Yes so we have over twenty thousand results for iphone cables that's a lot Yes this is where the anxiety starts so we're going to click on the one that we like All
00:14:08right so this one has a one hundred seventy seven reviews for stars like that looks great on the surface and then you take the girl copy it and then you paste it into view meta okay And then a hit run report and it wants a report All right
00:14:22And it's so computing computing bleep blue bleep bloops whatever it's going to take awhile it's reading like a hundred seventy seven reviews would take me like five hours at any rate Eventually it spits out a report and we got tommy newman on the line tow walk us through
00:14:35a few of the things his website flagged about thes iphone cable reviews Okay so for this product we see that over the course of five days this product got seventy eight percent of their reviews And on top of that the reviews from those high volume days gave the
00:14:52product a four point nine star rating on average these reviews over those five days pretty suspicious especially when you look at the reviews from those five days compared to the average reviews they're way more positive tommy says the reviews for these cables raised a few other red flags
00:15:09as well There was one issue with words that were being used over and over again in the reviews Okay so the phrase repetition basically what we do is we build a gigantic list of all of the phrases that are used in the reviews that air you know three
00:15:27words or mohr on dh then we give the algorithm is able to filter out normal phrases that would show up all the time for example it was the and this way the algorithm can look at weird phrases that you would not expect to be repeated for example the
00:15:41court is very tough and doesn't bend like the chords do but that's probably a good thing that's not you know that you shouldn't see that in more than one review but for here we see it in three reviews on dh in seven reviews someone wrote it's easy to
00:15:57get it back onto the court and use again i don't know what it means but seven people feel that way well seven people also say they performed their duty with honor and respect and there is the incorrect first s o tami software ran about a dozen different tests
00:16:17on iphone cable reviews and his reports spit out and adjusted rating eso it went from a four star out of five with one hundred seventy seven reviews on amazon and the adjusted rating on review Meta is one point seven stars after ten reviews which is another way of
00:16:37saying tommy site on ly trusted six percent of the reviews and the trustworthy reviews say actually these cables are crap tommy says generally speaking cables like this are exactly the kind of product that winds up cluttered with suspicious reviews anything with like low manufacturing costs and high margins
00:16:59ah like what Yeah yeah i phone cables back up batteries screen protectors phone cases weight loss pills to stop me of course reached out to amazon about this and they declined to go on tape but they are familiar with tommy's website They sent us an extensive statement about
00:17:18it review meta itself admits that they do not have the dash stacey stacey you could do this one is like a non weight lifter Oh okay review Meta itself admits that they do not have the data to know or even say with high confidence whether a review is
00:17:33fake According to what amazon is saying it's not necessarily different from what tommy told us about his own website he totally admits that his sight is looking for patterns of unusual behavior and there's a possibility that really reviews get flagged as unnatural for amazon that is a problem
00:17:50We have hundreds of millions of reviews on amazon and of that total less than one percent are inauthentic Amazon also told us that it's investing in its own system to catch fake viewers In other words amazon is saying there's not a problem but we're working on it and
00:18:04this makes me like wonder a little But how much should i trust that big sites like amazon are actually going to go out of their way to fix this so it's complicated right Because thes e commerce sites they make money when they sell more products right Like it
00:18:21doesn't matter if it's a positive fake review if someone buys a product that's good for the site But there might come a time where there was just too many fake reviews Sure like there's A tipping point where enough trust is lost that we all just give up on
00:18:38internet shopping Yes and we'll go back to france Cianfrance way will go backto grand for a friend right Well yes there is a point where it just wounds it for all of us and we have to go back to talking to her friends again You have to call
00:18:57you mom for shopping advice at yes what toothpaste you should use that as a question Today's show was produced by nick fountain Our editor is bryant er Stat are supervising producer is alex goldmark who told me to tell you way could use reviews to planet money likes reviews
00:19:23for police Don't fake it No real reviews only and special thanks tio Fake spot which is actually another similar software to review meto which you can use to spot a fake reviews They have been really helpful I'm kenny malone and i'm hilco shellman thanks for listening

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