-- Websites and online product reviews are increasingly pretending to contain legitimate opinions about products but are often simply for-hire endorsements or promotional material, experts say.
Deceptive review sites are among the first things consumers searching for reviews on products including juicers or treadmills would find, but they come and go so fast, it's difficult for regulators to police them, says Christine Frietchen, editor-in-chief of ConsumerSearch.com.
"The big problem is that these sites are turning up every day in consumers' online research during the holidays when they are looking for gifts and trying to do their homework like everyone tells them to do," says Frietchen, whose site summarizes the best expert and user reviews on the Web.
Jeff Hancock, a psychologist and associate professor at Cornell, co-authored a scientific study this year about online reviews and estimates up to 5% of all online product reviews are "deceptive opinion spam," or the work of people paid to tout or disparage products.
The Federal Trade Commission has brought two deceptive-advertising cases about fake reviews in the last 14 months:
•Nashville-based Legacy Learning Systems in March settled FTC charges that it deceptively advertised its DVDs of guitar lessons through affiliate marketers who falsely posed as users or independent reviewers.
•A public relations firm, Reverb, hired by video game developers settled FTC charges in August 2010 that it didn't disclose it had employees pose as ordinary consumers posting game reviews at the iTunes Store.
"The more egregious the claims are, the more likely they are to be targeted," says Mary Engle, director of the FTC's division of advertising practices. "Bad practices bubble up."
Engle recommends consumers be wary of review sites that suggest they've "reviewed a bunch of different products and then claim to find only one that's worthwhile." She says the most glowing and most negative reviews should be viewed warily: The glowing ones could be fake and the worst could be placed by competitors.
Hancock says there are fewer deceptive reviews on websites that note whether users have actually purchased the products they posted reviews about.