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Whether you're planning a restaurant date night or picking out the next e-book for your bedside table, it wouldn't hurt to be more suspicious of online reviewers' expertise.

Catfishing and astroturfing don't take place in the Amazon or on the football field. They occur in cyberspace in the form of Internet scams. E-book catfishing involves contracting a book from a low-paid writer overseas, publishing it under a fake name and a fictional biography, and buying fake reviews to make the book look popular.

In the related practice of astroturfing, some businesses pay people to write fake online reviews, or they encourage friends and family members to write glowing ones.

Amazon is suing more than 1,000 people, alleging they wrote fake reviews on its site. In some cases, those fake reviews are boosting the sale of fake products to astronomical heights. But how can consumers spot these reviews amid the rest?

Washington Post reporter Caitlin Dewey tells NPR's Ari Shapiro about the practice of e-book catfishing, which extends far past simply buying fake reviews, and Georgios Zervas of Boston University shares his insights and expertise from studying fake restaurant reviews.


Interview Highlights


On the legality of fake reviews

Obviously, using a pseudonym is not illegal. The problem is, that in a lot of cases, these people are inventing a fictional persona with expertise that they don't actually have. On top of that, they're buying these fake reviews, which is explicitly against Amazon's terms of service.

On avoiding Kindle book scams

Unfortunately, the bottom line is you can't necessarily trust the reviews. So you have to be very critical when you're reading reviews of books. It's also just as easy as doing a quick Google search. Just Google the author's name — and if nothing comes up, maybe you should be a little suspicious of their expertise.


On the prevalence of fake reviews

It's very hard to know whether a review is fake or not, because we are not there, looking behind the reviewer's shoulder, to see whether their opinion is honest, or dishonest and possibly incentivized. Nevertheless, considering the fact that Yelp would rather publish a review than throw it away, [the] 25 percent [of reviews on Yelp that get removed] might be a reasonable proxy.

On writing negative fake reviews

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