Have you ever found yourself annoyed with glowing online reviews that don’t seem real?
Amazon is, too. And now the retailers is taking the extraordinary step of suing the users who post them.
In a lawsuit filed on Friday, Amazon asked a Washington state court to grant damages against a group of people who it says posted phony 5-star reviews in exchange for $5. In some cases, the company used undercover agents to conduct transactions with the fake reviewers.
As the Amazon complaint explains, the fake reviewers ran their scheme through a work-for-site site called Fiverr. They allegedly used hundreds of fake Amazon account names and IP addresses in order to pepper the site with fake reviews. The text of the reviews are typically supplied by the people who hired them.
“You know the your [sic] product better than me. So please provide your product review, it will be better,” said one such reviewer cited in the complaint.
Amazon also claims that some defendants abused its “Amazon Verified Purchaser” program, which displays a tag to show a reviewer has actually purchased the product in question:
“[They] provide these “Verified Reviews” only if the reviewers obtain the product for free, in addition to receiving payment for the “review.” In at least one instance, the seller of a “Verified Review” was willing to receive an empty envelope …simply to create a shipping record to .. avoid detection by Amazon.”
The lawsuit comes after Amazon filed a similar complaint in April against a website called “buyamazonreviews.com” that offered fake endorsements.
The new case, however, does not specify the identities of the defendants, but instead names anonymous individuals known as “John Does 1-1114.” Amazon tells the court it will add their names at a later date once the company identifies who they are (presumably by asking internet providers to identify their IP addresses).
So why does Amazon claim it’s not lawful to post fake reviews in the first place? According to the complaint, the reviewers are liable for breach of contract since, as Amazon customers, they are bound by the company’s terms of service. Amazon also claims the fake reviews are unfair and deceptive under Washington law, and amount to unlawful interference with third-party contracts.
While the company is seeking damages and an injunction against the fake reviewers, it’s unclear if Amazon will actually see this through to the end–or if it’s just a salvo to suggest that the reviewers to knock it off. Notably, the company did not name the Amazon sellers who hired them in the first place. Under the company’s legal arguments, those sellers would be liable, too.
Here’s a copy of the complaint, which was first reported by Geekwire. I’ve underlined some of the relevant bits.
[This article, by Jeff John Roberts, appeared in Fortune’s Tech section on 10/19/15]