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Crystal Lake man raises questions about Amazon's ban on paid reviews after getting $20 offer for a 5-star review

Crystal Lake man raises questions about Amazon's ban on paid reviews after getting $20 offer for a 5 03:04

CHICAGO (CBS) -- It's fair to say you're in the minority if you haven't spent time scrolling Amazon reviews to make the perfect purchase. Some of those reviews are bogus.

Amazon knows that - and even took the step of banning sellers from soliciting reviews for money in 2016. 

That was six years ago, but money-manipulated ratings are still a problem.

Morning Lauren Victory introduces us to a Crystal Lake man who questions how seriously Amazon takes its own rules.

Lonny Stark is a serious cyclist; serious about his McHenry County trail rides and serious about his gear. Also serious -- his ethical concerns about a recent Amazon purchase. A month after receiving a bike lock, an unexpected package arrived.

"I opened it and inside was a tracking slip and a card in an envelope that says 'Happy Holidays,'" said Stark.

Inside the envelope -- a cheery postcard with a $20 e-gift card offer from the bike lock vendor in exchange for a 5-star review.

Some people might get excited about free money, but Stark was fuming.

"This bothers me because over the past six months or so, I've sent back half a dozen items that were total junk and every one of them had great reviews," said Stark. Then it clicked -- were customers paid for those reviews, too?

Amazon's seller guidelines specifically ban offering a financial reward for reviews. It's supposedly a zero-tolerance policy. 

"I know a lot of sellers who are legitimate who follow the rules who are kind of angry," said Stark.

He tried to alert Amazon to what he calls "a bribe" over email but said no one responded. So he called the company.

"I was told that they take it very seriously, and they would investigate it immediately, and I would receive an email in 48 hours," said Stark. That email never came.

The lock was still listed, even after CBS 2 reached out to Amazon, as well.

"My question now is do they [Amazon] actually take it seriously?" said Stark.

Ironically, the vendor calls itself "a trustworthy brand seller" on the postcard offering $20 for the 5-star review. 

CBS 2 emailed that vendor, which denied doing anything wrong.

Another twist: $20 is more than the cost of the lock (pre-tax).

Stark submitted a complaint to The Federal Trade Commission that has an entire section on its website dedicated to reviews.

One good FTC rule of thumb reads, "If you offer an incentive for a review, don't condition it, explicitly or implicitly, on the review being positive. Even without that condition, the review should disclose the incentive, because its offer may introduce bias or change the weight and credibility that readers give the review."

Amazon didn't answer specific CBS 2 questions about Stark's case and lack of communication with him but the company sent us the following statement:

"We want Amazon customers to shop with confidence knowing that the reviews they see are authentic and trustworthy. Our policies prohibit reviews abuse including incentivized reviews. We suspend, ban, and take legal action against those who violate these policies and remove inauthentic reviews. We aim to prevent fake reviews from ever appearing in our store and in 2020, we stopped more than 200M suspected fake reviews before they were seen by a customer. Amazon receives millions of reviews every week, each of which is analyzed before publication by our skilled investigators using sophisticated industry-leading tools. In addition, we continue to monitor all existing reviews for signs of abuse and quickly act if we find an issue."

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