It’s against the law for a business to create fake or misleading reviews or to arrange for others to do so.
There are certain signs that can indicate a review is fake.
Businesses can avoid misleading consumers by following a few guidelines.
What the ACCC does
- We provide general guidance to businesses on their responsibilities relating to online reviews, and to consumers on using online reviews.
- We accept reports about fake or misleading online reviews as well as review manipulation. We use those reports to inform our education, compliance and enforcement work.
- If a business misleads people in relation to online reviews, we can investigate and may take some form of compliance or enforcement action. See our compliance and enforcement policy and priorities.
What the ACCC can't do
- We don’t resolve individual disputes about online reviews.
- We don’t provide legal advice.
People offer reviews about business products and services they have used or experienced.
Reviews can appear on a business’s own website, on social media or on review platforms, which are sites that show product reviews about a range of businesses.
Reviews should be independent and reflect the genuine opinion of the person who experienced the product or service.
It’s against the law for a business to:
- create fake or misleading reviews
- arrange for others to create fake or misleading reviews.
Case study of a business that posted fake and misleading reviews
In 2011 we took action against removalist business Citymove for misleading online reviews.
Citymove admitted to making statements on its website that testimonials were genuine, when they were not. Citymove had copied testimonials from an unrelated review website, changed them and then published them on its own review website. Citymove was issued with an infringement notice and paid a $6600 penalty.
Read more in the ACCC media release Removalist admits publishing false testimonials.
There are some features or signs that can indicate a review is fake.
- a spike in highly positive or negative reviews over a short period of time
- multiple reviews written from the same email or IP address
- similar reviewers’ names
- generic reviews without specific detail about the business or product
- reviews written in similar language as other reviews for the same business or product.
Some review platforms require proof of purchase. These may be more reliable than those that don’t.
Reviews seem genuine when they’re not
Reviews can mislead consumers if they are:
- written by family, employees, or people paid in some way by the business to write the review, without stating the personal connection or commercial relationship with that business
- created by someone who hasn’t actually used the product or service
- edited or changed by someone else after being created.
Case study of a platform that allowed businesses to create their own reviews
Service Seeking Pty Ltd is an online tasking platform. Customers can seek quotes for jobs such as gardening, building or cleaning services from businesses on the platform.
Service Seeking let the businesses on its platform draft their own reviews. A business could give themselves their own star rating of jobs done. These were then sent to their customers. If the customer didn't respond to the review within 3 days, the review was automatically published.
The Federal Court ordered Service Seeking pay $600,000 in penalties for making false or misleading representations by publishing these reviews.
Read more in the Service Seeking ACCC media release.
Negative reviews are manipulated
A business may mislead consumers if they:
- suppress or edit negative reviews
- remove genuine reviews that are negative.
Businesses and review platforms should ensure they clearly display their policy for publishing, editing and removing reviews, and consider whether their policy may risk misleading consumers.
Case study of a business that suppressed and edited negative reviews
HealthEngine is an online health marketplace. It provides a booking system for patients and an online health care directory that allows consumers to search for and book appointments with healthcare practitioners. Until June 2018, HealthEngine also published reviews from patients about the quality and services of healthcare practitioners.
HealthEngine admitted that it did not publish a large volume of negative reviews (submitted between March 2015 and March 2018) and edited other reviews to remove negative aspects. HealthEngine also admitted that it misrepresented to consumers the reasons why it did not publish a rating for some health medical practices.
The Federal Court ordered HealthEngine pay $2.9 million in penalties, including for publishing misleading patient reviews and other conduct.
Read more in the HealthEngine ACCC media release.
Incentives are offered for positive reviews
Businesses that offer incentives to people to write a positive review risk misleading consumers and breaching the law. Incentives include offering discounts or free gifts.
Incentives offered to customers to provide reviews must be:
- applied regardless of whether the reviewer leaves a positive or negative review
- clearly disclosed so consumers know the review was incentivised.
Commercial relationships with review platforms aren’t disclosed
Commercial relationships between review platforms and businesses may affect the overall rating of a business on the platform. It may look like the business has more favourable reviews than it has.
Failing to disclose commercial relationships and how they may impact the reviews that appear on a website, platform or social media account may amount to misleading conduct.
The context impacts how consumers interpret reviews
Businesses and platforms must consider the context that affects how consumers interpret reviews on their website, platform or social media.
Businesses need to ensure they disclose any relevant context and it is clear to consumers.
For example, businesses and review platforms should ensure they clearly display the total number of reviews a star rating is based on. For example, ‘3 stars – 24 reviews’.
Businesses should carefully consider any complaints they receive about reviews on their website, social media or platform being false or misleading.
If a business is concerned that a review platform has published a false or misleading review about it, the business should contact the review platform and request that the review be removed. Alternatively, the business can respond to the review to correct the public record.
Businesses or review platforms that don’t remove or correct reviews they know, or should be aware, are fake may be in breach of the law.
However, businesses need to be careful that they have an adequate basis to conclude that a review is likely to be fake or misleading before removing or editing it. Reviewing or removing a negative review that was genuinely created may mislead consumers.