by Bill Snyder

Scam Alerts: Fake Amazon Reviews and ‘Free’ Trials

Sep 11, 20124 mins
E-commerce SoftwareInternetProductivity Software

The Internet is full of fakery. Beware of free trials that become recurring items on your credit card bills and take those great reviews on Amazon and other e-commerce sites with a shaker full of salt.

Since I can’t be everywhere at once to look out for technology consumers, from time to time I’ll be sharing warnings and insights from other publications. This month, I was struck by Tom Spring’s expose in PCWorld,’s sister publication, which warned consumers that all too many “free trial offers” tend to be anything but free.


Another one for the radar: The New York Times has been all over the issue of fake reviews on sites like Amazon. By fake, I mean someone with a vested interest in a product or service pretending to be a disinterested observer.

‘Free’ Trials that Aren’t Free

You’ve all seen offers to try out a tech service, such as a game site, credit reports, or computer support and been tempted to sign up since you can always cancel. PCWorld’s Spring signed up for a seven-day trial of ESPN Insider so he could get the inside dope on his beloved Red Sox without risking the full $44.95 annual fee. Here’s what he found out:

“Finding Red Sox slugger David Ortiz’s career RBI totals took seconds on ESPN, but trying to learn how to cancel the free ESPN Insider trial was considerably harder. I searched, clicked, and navigated to what felt like every corner of the site, to no avail. Before giving up I sent ESPN customer service a terse email message requesting that my account be canceled. The next day, the day that my free trial expired, my credit card was charged $44.95.”

Dedicated reporter that he is, Spring decided to find out if other sites pull similar stunts, so he got his boss to let him use the company credit card to check out 40 sites that offer free trials. The results, which you can read here, weren’t pretty. More than a quarter of the services he tested were difficult to quit and three of the sites charged him even though he canceled before the free trial ended.

Spring posted a list of the 12 worst offenders, including TrustFax, LifeLock, GameHouse, Identity Guard and Spotify, but also noted that he had very good experiences with Hulu Plus, Britannica Online, Dr. Laura, and a number of others.

He also posted seven tips to avoid hassles. Here’s one I didn’t know about: Don’t shop online with your bank debit card because they are not covered by regulations that allow consumers to ask their credit card companies to stop payment of a disputed purchase. Great advice.

Rave Reviews? Not Exactly

Amazon users who checked out “A Quiet Belief in Angels,” by popular English crime writer R.J. Ellroy came across this rave review by one Nicodemus Jones: “His ability to craft the English language is breath-taking. You find yourself experiencing so many emotions as you read this book and when you come to the end you don’t want it to stop.”

Sounds great. But it turns out that Mr Jones is actually R.J. Ellroy posting a bogus review to boost sales. Ellroy admitted the fakery, which turns out to be an all-too-common occurrence in the world of e-commerce. David Streitfeld wrote about Ellroy in the New York Times this week, and notes that “a Chicago researcher, Bing Liu, estimated that a third of all online reviews are suspect.”

Streitfeld and others have discovered that some business owners will pay bloggers to write good stuff about them, and that good reviews are sometimes posted by the owners of restaurants and hotels eager to attract customers. On the flip side, some unscrupulous types will post negative reviews about the competition.

What can you say about tactics like that?  

(Illustration by Adam McCauley/PCWorld)