While Amazon has banned more than a million fraudulent products claiming to cure or protect customers from the coronavirus, Gizmodo found that third-party vendors continue to use fake reviews, bot farms, and other deceptive methods to sell suspicious N95 masks to a panicked public.
A scrape of 75 products returned from a search for “N95 Medical Masks” on Amazon revealed thousands of “verified purchase” reviews across 13 different products that were likely generated by bots or in some cases are outright plagiarized from completely unrelated products.
By aggressively pushing out its competitors, Amazon has expanded to become the world’s largest online retailer, in the process leaving consumers with little choice as to where to shop online. And while the company does actively delete fraudulent listings and comments, unnumbered customers can be duped before they do—especially in this era of panicked shopping and self-isolation amid the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, when Amazon is often people’s only viable choice.
The strategy of packing product listings with bogus reviews is nothing new, according to Saoud Khalifah, the founder and CEO of Fakespot, a company that uses machine learning to detect fake reviews and fraud in order to “bring trust and transparency to online shopping.” Khalifa told Gizmodo in a phone interview that, “these third-party sellers are using fake reviews to pump their product when people search for antiviral masks. Our system gives all the aforementioned examples F and D grade for fraud and people should be wary buying them.”
Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued warning letters to seven companies for selling fraudulent covid-19 products. “The FDA considers the sale and promotion of fraudulent COVID-19 products to be a threat to the public health. We have an aggressive surveillance program that routinely monitors online sources for health fraud products, especially during a significant public health issue such as this one,” FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn said in a press release.
Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, sent a letter to the FTC on March 10 urging, “The FTC should not allow any consumer to suffer from a scam or predatory business practice during this public health emergency.”
Fakespot works by using its database of over 6 billion reviews to train a machine learning model to “recognize patterns of inauthenticity and deception” in Amazon listings. To do our analysis, Gizmodo leveraged Fakespot’s services by letting their algorithm grade 75 product listings from an Amazon search of “N95 Medical Masks” and “N95 masks.”
While a majority of the products we fed to Fakespot’s algorithm had too few reviews to make a confident judgment, Fakespot graded 13 products with a D or F rating, five 5 with a C rating, and 12 with an A or a B rating. Indeed, when we checked the listing for the 13 failing or D grade products we found hundreds of likely fraudulent reviews.
For example, Gizmodo found dozens of reviews that were seemingly lifted from the reviews of a romantic novel written by Marie Force called Fatal Accusation. “Now we have two working professionals who have to juggle their love lives around their separate jobs; under public scrutiny and the ever watchful eye of the paparazzi,” one review for an N95 Medical “Antiviral” Mask read. We reached out to Force but did not yet receive a response.
Another Anti-Virus N-95 mask’s 81 reviews seemed to have been lifted from a nail brush’s listing: “I love this product. I’ve already gone through 3 of them (not because they wear out, because I keep losing them!) and they work great for french tips.”
The analysis suggests something that, as online consumers, we likely already know: We need to be cautious when purchasing from Amazon. Fakespot has a Chrome Extension which allows users to analyze product reviews in real time.
Last week, Amazon notified sellers that the platform would be blocking new listings for face masks, hand sanitizer, or other coronavirus-related products. On Tuesday the company announced that warehouses would only be receiving shipments of “household staples, medical supplies, and other high-demand products” until April 5.
In the process of reporting this piece, Amazon removed the listings for several of these products and deleted hundreds of fraudulent reviews from the products that remain. To Khalifa, this is all part of a game of cat and mouse between Amazon and these third-party sellers. “Amazon will react to high profile items, if the media mentions it, they will usually take care of that retroactively,” he said. “However according to our analysis the problem is worsening … the nefarious actors know about the purges, so they post more fake reviews right after the purge.”
An Amazon spokesperson told Gizmodo, “We work hard every day to protect our shoppers and sellers. Bad actors that attempt to abuse our systems make up a tiny fraction of activity on our site. We use sophisticated tools, including machine learning, to combat them, and we are making it increasingly difficult for bad actors to hide. These bad actors show a flagrant disregard for our community, our policies, and in some cases, the law, and do not reflect the flourishing community of honest entrepreneurs that make up the vast majority of our sellers.”
Update 4:20pm ET, March 20: Added statement from Amazon spokesperson.