U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Courtesy of Blumenthal’s office)

As students nationwide get ready to return to school, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal is calling on Amazon to crack down on fake or exaggerated reviews. 

“It’s kind of the wild west — overly positive, unduly negative,” Blumenthal said during a press conference Monday at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. “They both accomplish an anti-competitive, unfair and misleading purpose, which is to denigrate someone else’s product or exaggerate the quality of their own.” 

Blumenthal’s comments come as the FTC is considering new rules against fake reviews. Amazon said last week that it’s taken a series of steps, including two lawsuits, to stop fake review on its site. 

The problem of fake reviews is not new and the FTC proposed warned companies last November that it planned to impose new rules. 

Blumenthal said Monday he wanted to bring attention to the issue as students start shopping for school supplies. Monday kicked off Connecticut’s weeklong sales tax holiday for back-to-school supplies. 

Blumenthal said high school students will spend $41 billion on back-to-school shopping. For college students, that number is closer to $94 billion. 

Students shopping online may rely on reviews to decide which products to buy, but those reviews may not be legitimate. 

U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, or PIRG, told the FTC in January that a study of online reviews estimated that as many as 40% are fake or deceptive. 

These can include outright fake reviews, positive reviews written by someone who received free items or other compensation, or social media influencers who promote products withheld a financial partnership. 

U.S. PIRG said its study also found negative reviews from people who didn’t actually purchase the products and attempts by companies to scrub its own negative reviews. 

Fake reviews are an industry-wide problem, but Blumenthal said he decided to focus on Amazon because of its size and name recognition. The National Retailers Foundation lists Amazon as the second biggest retailer in the country, behind only Walmart. 

“It knows they’re fake,” Blumenthal said. “It has the capacity to crack down and all that’s needed devoting resources.” 

Amazon said on Aug. 14 that the problem is mainly because of so-called “fake review brokers” that approach people online and ask them to write reviews in exchange for free merchandise, money or other incentives. 

The company said it blocked more than 200 million suspected fake reviews last year. Amazon also filed lawsuits against two companies, PMNLWeb and ProAmazonService, accusing them of being fake review brokers. 

“Customers rely on product reviews to make informed purchase decisions, and these fraudsters need to be held accountable for intentionally deceiving Amazon customers, harming our selling partners, and abusing our store,” David Montague, Amazon’s vice president of selling partner risk, said in a statement. 

The FTC also wants to hold companies accountable when they buy, sell or somehow influence online reviews. In June, the agency proposed fining companies $50,000 for each fake review. 

That fine is directed at the companies that buy and sell reviews, though, and would not force Amazon, Yelp, Google or any other website offering reviews accountable. 

The new rules also bar companies from offering incentives on the condition that customers leave a positive review, but would not bar companies from offering gifts for simply writing a review. 

The FTC is seeking public comments through Sept. 29 before making a final decision on the proposed rule. 

In the meantime, consumers can do things to protect themselves and spot fake reviews, including: 

  • Checking time stamps of reviews to see if several positive ones were posted in a cluster. 
  • Watching for reviews that repeat positive, or negative, language. 
  • Looking for “verified purchaser” badges on Amazon or other sites that confirm a customer paid for the product. 
  • Checking a reviewer’s profile for suspicious patterns, like always giving five star reviews or repeating identical language. 
  • Using tools like Fakespot to identify suspicious reviews.