Earlier this year, I created a completely fake business and then bought it an amazing online reputation. I used a website called Fiverr.com, where freelancers were willing to do just about anything for $5, including making up and posting flattering online reviews of my non-existent karaoke truck.
It turns out that I was not the only person who conducted a sting operation on Fiverr this year. Amazon also went undercover on the site to buy five-star reviews from Fiverr users in what it calls an "extensive investigation" in court documents. Amazon prohibits not only fake reviews on its site but real ones that are paid. Now it's suing the people who were willing to write reviews of Amazon's products in exchange for cash. It filed a lawsuit Friday in Seattle against 1,114 Fiverr users, alleging breach of contract and violation of consumer protection laws.
"Defendants are misleading Amazon's customers and tarnishing Amazon's brand for their own profit and the profit of a handful of dishonest sellers and manufacturers," wrote Amazon's lawyers in the complaint.
One Fiverr user I interviewed earlier this year who'd written a fake review on Yelp for my make-believe karaoke truck saying it was "perfect for a girl's night out," told me she'd written more than 100 reviews, including ones on Amazon for a Bluetooth-powered key locator and Santa Claus outfits for silverware.
"Businesses need positive reviews sometimes, because people are more likely to leave a negative review than a positive one,” she told me. When I asked another user if she realized what she was doing was illegal, violating laws against deceptive advertising, she responded, "Yes…." via a Fiverr message.
Fortune described Amazon's lawsuit against people who write fake reviews for $5 as "going after an ant with a sledgehammer." It may seem ridiculous but Amazon hopes it will have a deterrent effect on other people willing to give out five stars for five dollars. And fake positive reviews can have a nasty effect on the overall marketplace, falsely convincing people to buy something or hire someone who turns out to not be as good as you thought based on reviews, as security blogger Brian Krebs complains happened with this moving service.
In its complaint, Amazon says the reviewers it hired through Fiverr used different IP addresses and multiple Amazon accounts to mask their activity. Interestingly, even though they have Amazon accounts, Amazon was not able to unmask them, instead suing them as "John Does." The company says in the complaint that it wants to know who they are, as well as all the people who have bought reviews from them. The delivery giant says it wants the money they've received to write fake reviews as well as legal damages.
When asked whether it would hand over its users' identities to Amazon, a Fiverr spokesperson sent over a canned statement, saying it "respond[s] promptly to any reports of inappropriate content." "The challenge of merchants soliciting illegitimate reviews is one that faces all marketplaces and online platforms," said the spokesperson by email. "In fact, in our own marketplace we restrict reviews to only those who we can verify have actually purchased a service.”
Amazon says in its complaint that one Fiverr freelancer even gamed that system by saying he or she was willing to accept an empty envelope from a seller to create a shipping record so he or she could leave a "verified" review.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment about the suit. It's Amazon's second attempt this year to deal with fake reviews in the courtroom. Before going after individual reviewers, it sued sites that offer positive reviews.