Her Amazon Purchases Are Real. The Reviews Are Fake.
Jobs | November 21, 2019
Earlier this year, one woman stumbled into a side hustle that’s resulted in hundreds of free Amazon products, worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Jessica — not her real name — has spent well over $15,000 on Amazon this year, buying everything from Halloween decorations to a queen-size inflatable mattress. She’s purchased over 700 products, including three vacuum cleaners, six desk chairs, and no fewer than 26 pairs of earbuds. And even though most of the products are cheaply made, she’s given each a 5-star review. The twentysomething who lives on the East Coast isn’t a bad judge of quality — the companies that sell these products on Amazon reimburse her for the purchases.
Although the loot may be free to her, Jessica’s habit does come with a cost — if you’ve considered buying an Instant Pot recently, her 5-star review, complete with photos and a video, might have nudged you toward a knockoff instead of the real thing. It’s entirely fake, but Jessica told BuzzFeed News she doesn’t think she’s gaming the system; she’s trying to help brands grow their businesses in Amazon’s massive marketplace. “I’m just a pawn in their marketing scheme,” she said.
Third-party sellers know what it takes to make it on Amazon: Get good reviews and a high search ranking. But attracting genuine customers is tough, so some sellers use a reliable cheat — bribes. Because of Amazon’s vast scale, inscrutable algorithms, and capricious enforcement of its own rules, unscrupulous sellers and paid shills largely get away with it.
Amazon has banned giving away free products in exchange for reviews, so Jessica requested anonymity out of fear that the company would suspend her account.
Sellers reach out to Jessica through targeted Facebook ads touting free items or dedicated review groups with thousands of members, and give her a specific set of instructions to purchase their products on Amazon. After she leaves a 5-star review, the sellers reimburse her via PayPal or an Amazon gift card, and let her keep the items she reviews.
Jessica’s activity, as far as Amazon is concerned, looks legitimate. She makes purchases from her own Amazon account and credit card, so her reviews are labeled as a “verified purchase.” After the sellers confirm Jessica has left a 5-star review, the payment is made out of Amazon’s view. The credit card, an Amazon-branded rewards card, gives Jessica an extra bonus for the purchase. In other words, third-party sellers aren’t the only ones paying her to leave fake reviews and superficially boost sales — Amazon is too.