The Business of Fraudulent Reviews, Big and Small

You’d have to be fantastically naive to believe that every “review” for every product on every website on the internet is legitimate. Reviews are Serious Business, because they are – according to some people, at least – worth money, insofar as positive reviews enhance credibility and consumer confidence and all that crap.

It’s usually not too hard to spot the most obvious fraudulent reviews, and there have been news stories of late of people working on algorithmic approaches to detecting more sophisticated fraud.

Sometimes, though, the pros aren’t nearly as good as they think they are, and can be found out by some patient human sleuthing.

Today, let’s meet one of the arguably least honest authors ever to grace the virtual shelves of…

His name is J.G. Sandom. He has a Wikipedia page, which he’s heavily edited himself. He has a blog, as well.

He’s written a half-dozen books, both under his own name and the pseudonym T.K. Welsh. He’s quite happy to tell you all about that part of his life.

Something he’s slightly less forthcoming about is his involvement with ‘Party Money In Your Pocket’, a service whereby people are paid $5 to write five-sentence “reviews” of Kindle e-books on Amazon. Five-star “Amazon verified purchase” reviews, I might add. You needn’t even write the “review” yourself; a generic template is provided. There is, of course, the flip side – Reviews 4 Pay, where naive authors pony up money for five-star e-book reviews on Amazon.

I could go on and on about how this is a cynical get-rich-quick scheme to prey on the insecurities of struggling independent authors, and how it’s a clear violation of Amazon’s terms of use, and ridiculously unethical, and sleazy, and stupid, and so on and so forth, but let’s, instead, consider a slightly different aspect of this whole thing:

What makes J.G. Sandom think he can get away with selling fraudulent reviews on Amazon?

The answer, once you go looking, is actually quite simple: He’s been doing it for his own books for several years.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some of the many, many Amazon sock-puppet accounts of his:

Elvis57: Has written one review. Five stars. “Fans of J.G. Sandom will be thrilled that he has written a thoughtful and thought-provoking novel… This novel would make an excellent book club selection… In addition to the historical aspects of the novel, character development and writer’s craft would both be rich seeds for discussion.”

Gracie412: Eleven reviews; five are for Sandom/Welsh books; one other (on 23 Aug 2011) is a five-star, five sentence review of a $0.99 YA novel published 17 Aug 2011, leading me to believe it’s a “Reviews 4 Pay” review.

Squirrel: Three reviews, all five-star reviews of Sandom novels. The most recent review (for The Wave) was pretty much left in response to a one and two star review by people whose review history suggests they’re real people, rather than sock puppets.

DT: Two reviews, both five-star reviews of Sandom novels.

B. Moore: One five-star review, of a Sandom novel, left immediately following a one-star review. “…a book that is far, far better than many of those on the best-seller lists. And J.G. Sandom is a far better writer than many of those best-selling authors who churn out books like widgets on an assembly line. He deserves a wide audience”

mietzemau: One review. Five stars. To a Sandom novel. “This book is so enjoyable that I am baffled as to why it has not yet been made into a movie.”

Traveler: One review. Five stars. To… wait for it… a Sandom novel. The “review” talks more about the author than the book.

“Party Money In Your Pocket” / Reviews 4 Pay promise complete anonymity and confidentiality for the authors and reviewers involved, but Sandom’s greed makes that pretty laughable. Consider, if you’d care to, some possible sock puppet accounts which are fairly obviously involved in the “Party Money In Your Pocket” programme:

S.Bbo: Short glowing verified “reviews” of Sandom’s The Wave, as well as “A Is For Asparagus”, “The Publicist”, and “Millie’s Rose”.

Jeff Block: Short glowing verified “reviews” of Sandom’s The Wave, as well as “A Is For Asparagus”, “The Publicist”, “Vimana”, “Fallen Blood”, and “Millie’s Rose”.

S. Frazer: Short glowing verified “reviews” of Sandom’s The Wave, “A Is For Asparagus”, “The Publicist”, “Millie’s Rose”, “Vimana”, and “Fallen Blood”.

complete.diana: Short glowing verified “reviews” of “A Is For Asparagus”, “The Publicist”, “Vimana”, “Millie’s Rose”, and “Fallen Blood”.

Starting to see a pattern, here?

To be fair, Sandom hasn’t just limited himself to gaming Amazon – check out some of his Goodreads sockpuppets here and here and here and here and here and here

You have to stop and ask yourself… has it worked? That is, has this fraud had a positive impact on book sales? I’d guess it has, to judge from the years this has gone on, and the amount of effort that’s been put into it. It’s like spam – a lot like spam, really – in that people wouldn’t do it if it didn’t pay.

Amazon, incidentally, is apparently quite happy to look the other way, where this is concerned. They’ve allowed this to go on for years, since at least 2009. They were notified about it several weeks ago. It took me less than an hour to uncover, and I’m just some two-bit nobody who doesn’t like systemic dishonesty.

This is, to be fair, a really crappy third-rate amateur effort at fraud on a shoestring budget. Compared to some of the entities that are undoubtedly gaming the review systems at Amazon and elsewhere, it’s kind of pathetic.

It’s sloppy. It’s obvious. It’s lazy. And the amount of money involved is, in the grand scheme of things, pretty damned miniscule. Unless all the accounts involved are sock puppets, Sandom is, among other things, paying people $4-5 to review a book he makes $0.35 per copy sold on, and which he makes $20-25/month off of. (Based on the $0.99 Kindle price for The Wave, and’s estimate of 66 copies sold last month, 41 copies sold so far this month.) But it’s still happening, nonetheless. The mind boggles, slightly.

Amazon: Any time you’d like to send a clear and unambiguous statement that you’re getting serious about stamping out review fraud, well… you certainly know where to start. The ball’s in your court. You want to “improve the user experience” by rewarding customers for finding typo-laden or mis-formatted e-books, as some have alleged is going on? A sockpuppet ought to be worth at least as much as a typo, if the “user experience” means that much to you. But, hey, if fake five-star reviews produce more sales revenue… Cui bono?

Published in: 'D' for 'Dumb', Geekiness, General | on September 20th, 2011| 2 Comments »

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  1. On 9/20/2011 at 12:10 am Nemo Said:

    Credit for some of the information is due to folks at the Kindleboards forums, where much of this information was previously posted.

  2. On 10/1/2011 at 2:26 pm Anime Discussion Online Said:

    I never actually knew this. The awe full thing is that due to it cost it will attract many authors and many more new authors. For the writers who don’t know about this and are new to the game what sort of chance do they have to compete! It’s so unfair.