Jesse Jones

Inside the high-stakes world of online product reviews

All Johanna wanted was a snorkel set for her Mexican vacation.

She found one on Amazon and $27 later, she’d be struggling in a sea of online threats.

“It was threatening to expose my privacy. They said that they knew where my home address was. They would expose me to my friends and family,” says Johanna.

The threats began after Johanna left a one star review. We are not using her last name because of the nature of the threats.

“It was really poor quality, it was leaking all over,” she says of the snorkel.

She was asked to delete her review, for a price.

“I didn’t have to return the product but in exchange for deleting the one star negative review they’d give me a $30 Amazon gift card,” says Johanna.

After a month - no gift card. So Johanna reposted the one star review.

And then the threats began, via a burner email:

“I will expose your privacy, let more people know who you are and your ugly face will be known to everyone… and I also know your home address.”

“They even asked, like ‘is it worth it?” says Johanna. “It did feel threatening, yeah. Because I didn’t know what they were going to expose. And what are they going to - what part of my privacy are they going to share?”

Johanna reported the issue to Amazon and to me.

A representative of Amazon says they looked into the case and suspended the snorkel company.

In a statement, they say:

“Our policies prohibit reviews abuse including incentives to take down negative reviews or to write positive reviews. We suspend, ban, and take legal action against those who violate these policies. We aim to prevent fake reviews from ever appearing in our store.”

But when we contacted the snorkel company, they claimed they never sent a gift card or any harassing emails.

They point the finger at a competing company.

“The competitor seller played trick[s] on customers, they didn’t send gift card or sent used/wrong gift card and aroused customers’ angry emotions,” the seller says in an email.

Which could be true, according to Amazon sales expert Jason Boyce.

“It is absolutely a jungle,” he says.

Jason has spent 20 years selling and managing brands on Amazon. He literally wrote a book on it.

“There’s a lot of other ways competitors can do some bad things, violate TOS so that it looks as if it was the seller that took this action,” says Jason.

TOS - that’s “Terms of Service,” the rules governing the Amazon website.

Jason also adds that reviews are valuable, and volatile.

“Or there’s an equal likelihood that this seller used the burner so that they could get this person to change their review and then when they got suspended they could be reinstated. With this sort of arms-length or two or three degrees separation,” says Jason.

While Amazon says they don’t give customer contact information to third party sellers, Jason says there are ways to buy it online.

“But it very much is still the wild wild west on that platform,” says Jason.

Bottom line, says Jason: never negotiate over a review. And only communicate with sellers on the Amazon platform itself, so you know who you’re dealing with.

Johanna says she learned a few lessons from this process. Including…

“Not to trust reviews. And then actually probably might not post reviews anymore. Because I don’t want to get harassed,” says Johanna.

If you’re asked to change your review, Amazon says to report it immediately. The company gets millions of reviews a week on its site and the company says they are constantly monitoring for fake or abusive content.

Get the real story on reviews

According to the Better Business Bureau, here are some best practices on sorting through reviews and spotting fakes:

  1. Don’t just look at the star rating - read the reviews!
  2. Look at multiple review sites.
  3. Check for reviews that review the product, not just the experience around the product like shipping time or customer service.
  4. Look for repetitive, vague language. That could be a sign of a coached or fake review.
  5. Look for verified reviews.
  6. Look at the bad reviews, or search for complaints about the company and the product. This could reveal problems that aren’t addressed in glowing reviews.

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