The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has imposed a final consent order in its first-ever enforcement action on review hijacking.
The case involves when a marketer who steals consumer reviews of a different product to boost sales of their own. The FTC has ordered The Bountiful Company, a supplements retailer and maker of Nature’s Bounty vitamins, to pay $600,000 for deceiving customers on Amazon.
The Bountiful Company used Amazon’s feature to merge the reviews of different products, making some appear to have better ratings and reviews than they would have had if marketed under their own listings.
Amazon’s feature creates a single detail page that shows similar products that are different only in narrow, specific ways. For instance, a t-shirt may have a dozen SKUs associated with one another because it comes in different colors.
This feature could be used to combine the same supplement products by merging various SKUs featuring different quantities of the item in question. The Bountiful Company, however, exploited Amazon’s feature to merge its newer products with older, well-established products that had different formulations.
For example, the retailer merged newer supplements with three other products that had different formulations from one another. The company even stated in an internal email that the newer products had high ratings because of this variation relationship. Before the merge, one of the products only had 26 reviews and 3.2 stars.
However, after the merge, their sales spiked, and the ratings and reviews improved. The company repeated this process with various products across multiple categories, including brain focus tablets, elderberry soft gels, vitamins, and gummies. The brands involved included Nature’s Bounty and Sundown Kids.
Amazon has taken various measures to combat the fake review industry, such as filing lawsuits and permanently banning brands that engage in review fraud. However, Amazon enabled The Bountiful Company to commit fraud by providing a feature that allowed the retailer to deceive consumers. This indicates a lack of oversight on Amazon’s part.
The company’s inattention to health-related fraud around hijacked vitamin and supplement reviews is especially concerning now that Amazon has entered the healthcare market with its online pharmacy and telehealth service.
In response to a request for comment, an Amazon spokesperson shared the following:
“There’s no place for fraud in Amazon’s store. We have proactive measures in place to prevent listing abuse and we continuously monitor our store. Our policies prohibit reviews abuse including offering incentives like gift cards to write positive reviews. We suspend, ban, and take legal action against those who violate these policies and remove inauthentic reviews,” they said. “Amazon receives millions of reviews every week globally, which are analyzed before publication by our skilled investigators and sophisticated industry-leading tools. More than 99% of products viewed by customers in our stores contain only authentic reviews. Amazon will continue to assist enforcement agencies in holding bad actors accountable, including the FTC.”