Faking it by Omission? The FTC Targets Undisclosed Compensation for Online Reviews

Illustration for fake website testimonials By Julie Liu

When we sift through reviews for products and services, one of our top considerations is whether the words genuinely come from the customer’s experience and not a company’s imagination. There is no way, however, to determine a reviewer’s honesty beyond relying upon whatever disclaimers he or she provides. We have previously discussed the state of the law on fake business reviews. But what about “real” reviews incentivized by the reward of a good deal? If there was any question on the matter, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has now provided a real-life example of how to abide by the rules.

In a recent chapter in the battle against unfair competition online, the FTC zeroed in on automobile shipment broker AmeriFreight for its persuasive approach to seeking customer feedback. The FTC alleged in its complaint that AmeriFreight offered $50 discounts to customers in exchange for writing reviews on an independent review website and advertised its services to consumers as being “top rated” based on those reviews. In addition to the discount, reviewers automatically became eligible for a $100 “Best Monthly Review Award,” further incentivizing customers to write reviews. The complaint indicated that the issue was not the encouragement of reviews; the complaint alleged that AmeriFreight portrayed the reviews as unbiased and failed to disclose that the reviewers were compensated—a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act. The case concluded late last month with the FTC’s approval of a final consent order which requires AmeriFreight to clearly disclose any “material connection” it has with an endorser and to not misrepresent customer reviews or product ratings. Continue reading