Fake online reviews are still out there. Here’s how to arm yourself.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday have passed, but we’re guessing you still have plenty of holiday shopping to do.

If you shop online, or even in person, you need to be on the lookout for fake reviews.

They come in many shapes and sizes, and they’re going to stick around no matter what retailers try to do to curb their abundance.

That’s because shoppers take online reviews seriously, according to several studies, and they mean a lot to businesses, too.

Indeed, one study done last year found 61 percent of electronics reviews on Amazon were fakes.

Amazon told The Washington Post last year that more than 99 percent of its reviews are legitimate, but the Post said it found some product listings violated Amazon’s “prohibition on paid reviews.”

Such reviews have certain characteristics, such as repetitive wording that people probably cut and paste in — reviews that could masquerade as reviews for any product, the newspaper said.

So how can consumers know the real reviews from the fakes?

They can’t, said Ted Lappas, an assistant professor in the School of Business at Stevens Institute of Technology.

“Humans are now writing fake reviews. You can’t recognize them,” he said. “All you can do is look at the reviewer’s profile to see if he has a long and diverse history of reviewing various items on a platform. Even that, however, can easily be gamed.”

And yes, there are plenty out there trying to game the system.

One reviewer, Sunday Riley Skincare, was just called out by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for writing fake reviews for Sephora.

But this settlement is far from perfect.

The FTC doesn’t require that the skincare company admit to writing fake reviews, Lappas said. Rather, the company has promised not to do so in the future.

“They settled. It’s good that FTC-level organizations are realizing that companies such as Sunday Riley Skincare are using deceptive online marketing tactics and that this hurts American consumers,” he said. “However, it’s not realistically possible to prevent the generation of fake reviews by trying to find and punish fraudsters – although that should obviously happen, when possible.”

He said when companies pay for fake reviews, they risk their reputation.

“If they know that the online platforms will not influence users, then these risks and costs that come with writing fake reviews wouldn’t make sense for companies to take on,” Lappas said. “This is not the case today. Today, online platforms are very sensitive to fake reviews and are highly influential to consumers, so the motivation for companies to use these tactics is strong.”

But it’s not all bad news.

Reviews found on Amazon.com are getting better, said Tommy Noonan, founder of ReviewMeta.com, a free tool that analyzes reviews on Amazon.

He said earlier this year, ReviewMeta noticed millions of unverified reviews being posted. But importantly, he said, “this scam seems to have already been fixed by Amazon.”

But there’s a new Amazon rating system that Noonan finds troubling. It’s a so-called “one-tap” rating that allows shoppers to leave a review in one tap without having to actually write a review.

“We believe this is a step backwards for Amazon,” he said, noting that the new system is “already being gamed.”

The advice we offered last year still stands.

Here’s what you need to watch out for.

Check out the reviewer

Do a little research into the poster of the review. Click on the reviewer’s user name and check out their profile.

If a reviewer is especially prolific — like, a full-time shopper who seems to buy everything, whether on a single day or spread out — it’s a giveaway that something else is behind their glowing opinions.

It’s possible the reviewer was probably compensated for the reviews, Saoud Khalifah, the founder and CEO of Fakespot, a free site that analyzes reviews from Amazon, Best Buy, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Walmart and others, told us last year.

“It looks like someone went on a shopping spree when in reality they were given the products for free in exchange for a five-star review,” he said. “A real consumer would not have this many reviews because they would have had to spend a small fortune to purchase those products.”

Of course, it’s impossible to research every reviewer when a product has hundreds or thousands of reviews, so consider using a fake review spotting website or app because they do the legwork for you.

Quid pro quo

Noonan told us last year that some paid reviewers are instructed “specifically not to leave a disclaimer or mention the quid pro quo arrangement anywhere in the review.”

He said you should be suspicious if the reviewer uses the same marketing language found in the product description.

“Maybe they say something like ‘I love the Extended Range Wifi Boosting Technology (TM) when I use these In-Ear High-Quality Soundtech (R) Bluetooth Headphones,'” Noonan said.

How often do you speak like that about any product?

Some incentivized reviewers do share that they were compensated to review a product.

“What usually shocks consumers is when they find out that most major brands use incentivized reviewers to boost their products ratings online,” Khalifah said last year.

He said Fakespot doesn’t believe incentivized reviews are reliable because the reviewer is not actually buying the product. Also, the incentive to keep receiving free products causes the reviewer to keep giving five-star reviews, he told us.

Review hijacking

Watch out for reviews that aren’t meant for the product you’re reading about.

Noonan called it “review hijacking.”

This is when sellers steal reviews from other products to tout a completely different product.

You’ll be reading reviews for a screen protector and you’ll see reviews that say, ‘I loved this case!’ or ‘This charger was great,’ even though the product for sale is a screen protector,” he said.

A quick review of well, reviews, shows this is very common.

Make sure the review you’re reading makes sense for the product you’re considering.

Manipulation

Sellers can manipulate their reviews by aggressively removing negative reviews.

Noonan told us last year in those cases, you’ll see more positive reviews than negative ones.

“This could create a ‘collective falsehood’ even if there isn’t a single ‘fake’ review,” Noonan said. “It’s always recommended to actually read the reviews themselves rather than just rely on the numbers alone.”

Others try to give themselves a positive boost from their fans.

“What about when a brand has a massive, loyal Instagram following and asks their followers to all go leave them reviews? That’s going to be a skewed sample population, but you couldn’t argue that those reviews are ‘fake,'” Noonan said.

To help you do the research

When you’re looking online, if you see something questionable, use the tools that are available to you for further research.

Both ReviewMeta.com and Fakespot.com make their money through advertising, and both sites say companies that have fake reviews cannot buy off or otherwise influence the websites’ anti-fake review posts.

ReviewMeta.com said it has a very strict policy to never remove any pages from its site, nor will it adjust its algorithm specifically for any individual product or brand.

“We believe that all products should be analyzed with the same set of rules and the results should be published for all to see,” Noonan said last year. “What good would our tool be if we were changing or removing pages just because we received threats from brands?”

Keep your eyes wide open

As you read reviews, keep your guard up and at the risk of sounding cliché, take it all with a grain of salt.

Noonan said he suggests shoppers read the reviews before placing an order rather than just relying on star ratings.

“Always return items that did not live up to the reviews or description,” he said. This sends Amazon and the sellers a strong financial message that you won’t tolerate fake reviews or low-quality products on their platform.”

Shop smart, Jersey, and let us know about your experiences.

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.

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