Clamping down on fake online reviews

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently announced that it will be receiving additional enforcement powers in preparation for new laws seeking to stamp out fake online reviews. The proposals, contained in a government consultation Reforming competition and consumer policy, would essentially make it illegal to:

  • commission someone to write or submit a fake review;
  • host consumer reviews without taking reasonable steps to check they are genuine;
  • offer/advertise to submit, commission or facilitate fake reviews.

Commenting on the proposals, which come in light of the fact that the average UK household spends around £900 each year influenced by online reviews, Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:

“It’s very positive to see action to tackle the avalanche of fake reviews that undermine confidence in online shopping and tougher powers for the CMA to protect consumers from rogue companies that consistently flout the law – including the ability to fine firms directly.”

The rise (and fall?) of online reviews

In 2022, virtually every transaction with a company or organisation leads to a request for feedback – in the case of call centres often before the transaction has even taken place. On the face of it, these requests for reviews are designed to “improve customer service” or to help other customers make a purchasing decision. Where reviews are published online, the company will be hoping that eliciting more feedback will encourage more favourable reviews (as opposed to unfavourable reviews which are more likely to be unprompted). Feedback which is not published may be used by a company to assess the quality of contractors (eg call centres) or to provide metrics which management can feed into analytics tools in order to prove “success” to relevant stakeholders.

But even companies which don’t actively seek out feedback are nonetheless subjected to reviews on a range of online platforms, notably Tripadvisor. The reputations of hotels and restaurants are regularly trashed by a single reviewer, and this is so damaging that some proprietors have taken to replying with their own robust defences. Occasionally companies go so far as to offer inducements to customers to provide better reviews.

A whole cottage industry related to reviews has arisen – if not specifically part of the black market, then certainly a dark shade of grey. Companies, sometimes masquerading as SEO consultants often based in China and India, essentially offer a number of positive reviews for a price (eg 100 x five star reviews for a product on Amazon for £x). These “review farms” have thousands of fake accounts operated by a few individuals, which are deployed en masse to create positive PR. Sometimes they will also be tasked with generating negative PR for rivals (ie fake one star reviews).

The industrialisation of online reviews and the concomitant skullduggery has made consumers increasingly wary of ratings. Ironically, what may have originally been intended to help consumers make a choice has actually made it more difficult. Whether the steps announced by the CMA will improve matters remains to be seen.

Reviews and the gig economy

Although the CMA proposals are presented primarily as consumer protections, reviews and ratings have also become key components of the gig economy, feeding the hungry algorithms which often decide how to allocate work.

The importance of reviews to the Uber ecosystem serves as a good example. Passengers leave a rating (from one to five) for their driver at the end of a journey, and vice-versa. These ratings are used by the algorithm to determine whether a driver gets more work, and can also affect the ease of passengers to find a ride. Although this system should work in principle, there are a few problems:

  • Unreasonableness. There will often be someone who takes a random dislike to their driver and provides a terrible rating which is not fair, dragging down their overall score.
  • Tit for tat. Although Uber anonymises ratings, it may be possible for a driver to guess which passenger provided a bad rating, and provide a poor rating in return (this is a well known problem with the Airbnb review system which leads to a preponderance of positive reviews).
  • Fear and politeness. Since passengers are often dropped off at their home address, they might be reluctant to give their driver a bad rating, concerned about any reprisals. Others are simply very polite and don’t wish to cause any offence.
  • False reviews. In theory an Uber driver could pay someone to use other Ubers and provide bad ratings, indirectly boosting their own credentials on the algorithm as a result.

Without a full-scale independent investigation, it’s difficult to assess the significance of these problems with the Uber rating system. But what we do know is that drivers who receive poor ratings will lose work and ultimately can have their livelihoods destroyed as a result.

Although we have focused on Uber, the same principles can be extrapolated and applied to most gig economy work, which often relies heavily on ratings being fed into algorithms which consequently dole out work.

Are law firms affected by fake reviews?

Lawyers are not immune to the scourge of fake reviews. There has even been litigation in the wake of online reviews which have allegedly amounted to harassment of law firms. Firms which are active on social media have to be particularly careful to monitor comments from any disgruntled clients (or rivals posing as clients).

There are some review websites dedicated to solicitors which allow firms to dispute reviews they consider to be unfair. LinkedIn is also routinely used by lawyers to demonstrate their credentials, and this includes a “testimonial” feature which is essentially a controlled review platform.

How should lawyers be advising their clients?

Companies which commission fake reviews – a practice also known as “astroturfing” – are already in breach of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations. Procuring a fake positive review is considered an unfair commercial practice, and is a criminal offence with potential fines and even a prison sentence. Additionally, fake reviews can fall foul of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) code.

The forthcoming rules set out by the CMA will tighten up the laws regarding fake reviews and make it even more likely that companies committing this malpractice will face investigation and prosecution.

But laws and rules aside, a company which is found to have been procuring fake reviews is likely to suffer a far greater hit to its reputation in the long run.

Lawyers should ensure their commercial clients are aware of the dangers of fake reviews. As well as advising against overt astroturfing, they should also tell their clients to instruct SEO consultants (particularly if they are based overseas) to refrain from engaging in any such activity.

Further reading

Businesses who commission fake reviews should worry about more than just illegality – Pinsent Masons

Avoiding ‘Fake Views’ – A guide to testimonials and endorsements – ASA

Engaging with online reviews – SRA

Can you afford to ignore online reviews? – The Law Society

Alex Heshmaty is technology editor for the Newsletter. He runs Legal Words, a legal copywriting agency based in the Silicon Gorge. Email

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay.