Companies pay fake customers to give online stores positive reviews

Source:Global Times Published: 2015-7-6 20:38:02

Xiao Li (pseudonym) recently found a new way to make money. She just needed to sit in front of her computer, receive orders from her boss online, go to China's largest online shopping platform Taobao, type a few words and then wait for money to fly into her pocket. 

Every morning she would wake up, turn on her cell phone and open up the WeChat messaging application to see if there are any new orders. She joined a platform with over 2,000 others and spent the last two weeks forging positive comments for stores on Taobao.

"We were forging a huge number of comments and ratings every day," Li told the Fujian-based Xiamen Daily, adding that she felt increasingly worried before finally deciding to reveal the shady practice.

With the rapid development of the e-commerce industry, more and more customers are buying things through online stores. Apart from eye-catching promotional stunts, customer reviews and store's ratings are the most important part of attracting new customers. Many Taobao stores' owners ask their friends to make fake orders and write positive reviews to help them stand out from the crowd.

However, during an undercover interview, the Xiamen Daily found out that this fraudulent reputation-building has moved on from these simple scams, with some agents specializing in recruiting people to be "full-time fake customers."

By connecting Taobao store owners to those fake customers, these agents have gradually formed large-scale organizations with clear role allocation and pyramid scheme-type business models, which lure others to join their illicit business by promising high commissions. 

Tutoring fees and admission tests

Helped by Li, the Xiamen Daily reporter contacted such an organization's media officer, nicknamed Xiao Xian, through WeChat, who said that the job is very easy and that one could earn about 3,000 yuan ($483) per month.

However, applicants must first hand over a membership fee to the organization. An "ordinary" membership is 99 yuan, a "senior" membership costs 158 yuan and a "supreme" membership fee is 298 yuan. The more the membership costs the larger commission the member makes per fake order.

After paying the fees, applicants are also required to receive training and pass a test. A person named Gong Jin was responsible for training new members, including teaching them how to use the online payment service Alipay and how to complete the purchase process.

Guided by Gong, the reporter logged into a chat room with a notice that read "orders will be distributed between 9 am and midnight." Hundreds of orders rolled down on the screen and each one was labeled with the amount of commission one can make for writing a fake review.

Different stores have different requirements. For example, the reporter received an order which asked him to use a Taobao account that was registered at least one month ago to purchase commodities no more than eight times every month, so as to avoid suspicion from Taobao's administrators.

The staff members who are in charge of arranging orders through the chat room are known as "hosts." Once fake customers choose which order they are interested in, they contact the hosts who then provide them with the exact details they need to complete the "purchase."

Following hosts' instructions, fake buyers pretend to be real customers and visit several stores as if they are shopping around. Then they would visit the target store and start to chat with the store owners. After the fake buyers use an agreed-upon code word, they order, pay, make comments, give the store a positive rating and are subsequently given a commission plus the money they paid to the store. 

At least 500 reviewers work online for the organization every day, said the reporter, adding that proficient fake buyers could finish an order in three minutes.

Xiao Zheng, another fake customer, said that he has been doing this illicit work for two years and can earn an average of 10,000 yuan a month, reported the Chongqing Evening News. He has registered several Taobao accounts to process more orders.

"However, fake customers need to pay for the order first and then they can receive the principal and the commission, which is not always safe," he said, adding that sometimes agents make off with the money from store owners and fake customers.

'Pyramid scheme-type business'

A Taobao account is able to accomplish 15 orders a month without raising suspicion and a fake customer can make around 3 yuan per order, which is far below what Xiao Xian had promised, said the reporter.

Xiao Xian admitted that there are five positions in the organization including fake customers, media officers, hosts, tutors and customer service positions. Every position makes a different level of commission, with media officers earning the most as they  lure in new fake customers, which is key to the organization's business model. For example, signing up a "supreme" member can land them an 80-yuan commission. 

The steady flow of new fake customers who join the platform keeps the organization afloat and the membership fees are divided up by the staff members in different positions, which is very similar to a pyramid scheme, said the newspaper.

Harsh punishment

A Taobao customer service officer told the newspaper that they have implemented harsh punishments for stores engaging in this practice. Once they are found out, store owners will be warned and have their vital reputation ratings downgraded. Repeat offenders may even see their stores permanently shut down.

Taobao said that it has been utilizing technology to scrutinize abnormal trades and has organized a 2,000-member team to conduct investigations into fake reviews and ratings. So far, several high-level stores have been punished.

Zheng Zhining, a Fujian-based lawyer, said that it is illegal for store owners to attract customers in this way as it infringes on customer's rights and is a kind of false advertising.

Newspaper headline: Taobao trickery

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