"More people are depending on reviews for what to buy and where to go, so the incentives for faking are getting bigger," says University of Illinois computer science professor Bing Liu. 

That consumers are increasingly turning to online reviews prior to making a purchase (offline or online) is now pretty much common knowledge.  I wrote extensively about this in Connecting With Consumers in my discussion of WOM and have posted a separate entry at this site on the power of consumer reviews.  That a majority of online reviews tend to be positive, with a ratio relative to negative reviews estimated anywhere from 3:1 (Robert East and his colleagues at the UK's Kingston U.) to 6:1 (Keller-Faye), already raises questions about whether many reviews may be bogus.

It is one thing for blatantly fake raves to be anonymously posted by unscrupulous e-commerce marketers, the equivalent of the used-car salesman freshly painting a worthless crate to move it off the lot, but now it appears that online tactics are becoming more subtle. Last week amazon.com seller VIP Deals offered buyers of its $10 plus shipping leather case for the Kindle Fire (list priced at $59.99) a full rebate for writing "a product review for the Amazon community."  The offer was explained in a letter that arrived in the package along with the leather case, further explaining, "In return for writing the review, we will refund your order so you will have received the product for free."  Although it wasn't specified that the review had to be positive, the statement "We strive to earn 100% perfect 'FIVE-STAR' scores from you!" made it abundantly clear what kind of review was sought - the not-so-subtle equivalent of a wink, an arm twist, and a quick elbow jab to the ribs.  So it is no surprise that by last week, 310 out of 335 reviews of the leather case were five stars and most of the others were four stars, and the company itself had received 4,945 reviews on Amazon resulting in a nearly perfect 4.9 rating out of five.

Unfortunately, this tactic is nothing new.  Representatives of TripAdvisor have learned that an increasing number of hotels are bribing their guests with offers of free rooms, upgrades, and discounts if they post an "honest" but "positive" review of their property on TripAdvisor.  If you've searched for a hotel online, you probably have a good idea what these bogus missives sound like, especially if you yourself have been misled:  "Wow, what a find," or " a peaceful paradise"  or "perfect in every way!"  There is nothing wrong with owners encouraging customers to 'spread the word,' or 'write a favorable review'--a clear incentive to provide good service-- but when the offer of an incentive is thrown in, then things get dicey.

In the US, for example, the regulatory agency, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), has rules stating that when there is a connection between a merchant and someone promoting its product that affects the endorsement's credibility, it must be fully disclosed.  Failure to comply can be costly.  Last March, a company that sells music instructional tapes, Legacy Learning Systems settled charges that it had hired affiliates to post favorable reviews on Web sites, paying $250,000 in fine.  TripAdvisor places a red flag against those properties it suspects of paid-for-reviews, but alas there is no foolproof way at present to nab all the culprits.  Considering that reviews can make or break a hotel or restaurant on such a powerful site, more precise methods are sorely needed.  The aforementioned Prof. Liu is among those working on the development of mathematical models to systematically I.D. the bogus endorsements.  

So while we wait for those computer gurus to find a sure solution for 'fakespotting,' here are three simple tips offered by Rebecca Greenfield (The Atlantic):

My fear is that as more companies continue to jump on the fake review bandwagon, viewing it as a cheap way of marketing, it won't be long before consumers stop trusting customer reviews entirely.  And once you shoot an arrow through the heart of WOM, what are we left with but traditional advertising.  Do we really want to go back?