How tech firms are manipulating user reviews

Samsung S3
Samsung is being investigated over allegations that it paid for HTC-bashing comments

Can you believe anything in the bottom half of the internet? According to reports, Samsung is being investigated by Taiwanese authorities over allegations that the electronics giant has been paying students to slag off HTC and praise Samsung kit online.

Samsung Taiwan has placed a statement on its local Facebook page, apologising for "any inconvenience and confusion from the internet event" and saying that it has "halted all internet marketing such as posting articles on websites". If the allegations are upheld, Samsung and its local advertising agent could be fined up to $835,000 for false advertising.

Such activities aren't just illegal in Taiwan. They're illegal here too. Not that this stops people from doing it, or otherwise trying their very best to pervert reviewing systems. You simply can't trust online user reviews any more.

Bully for you

The whole point of online user reviews is to protect you from scammers, incompetents and gangsters. Unfortunately reviews are easy to game. You can do what Samsung's agent is alleged to have done and pay sockpuppets - users who'll praise your firm and damn the competition. Or you can do what some other firms do, and threaten people who post critical reviews.

I've seen evidence of a particularly appalling bit of sharp practice this week involving a UK smartphone recycler. The scam is this: the firm quotes a higher price for your handset than anybody else, then when they get your phone they tell you that it's in terrible condition and only worth a fraction of the amount quoted. A phone you sent with minor scuffs is apparently so badly scratched that it's barely worth anything at all. You want proof? That'll be £15 for a photo.

At this point you'll probably go online and post a review pointing out that the firm's guarantee - the price it quotes is the price it pays, guaranteed - is balls. If you do, then within a few hours you'll get an email accusing you of libel, threatening you with legal action and telling you that if you don't remove your review, you'll never see your phone again or receive any payment.

Such behaviour is completely illegal, of course, but the company appears to be getting away with it: in addition to the email trail I've seen, I know of five other people who've been on the receiving end of threats and nastygrams. As a result the firm's reputation remains intact. It even boasts of its customer feedback on its home page.

Between such bad behaviour and the widespread practice of bulk-buying fake user reviews, it seems the comment system is completely broken.

Is there a moral to this story? I think there are two.

One, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

And two, don't slag off firms when they've still got your stuff.

Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now and her next book, about pop music, is out in 2025. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band Unquiet Mind.