FTC fines supplement maker $600K for misleading consumers with ‘review hijacking’

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The Federal Trade Commission has ordered a supplement maker to pay $600,000 for deceiving Amazon customers by merging the reviews of different products to inflate the review scores of its unpopular products.

Investigators found that the Bountiful Company exploited an Amazon feature known as “variation relationships” which lets companies combine reviews of certain similar products in an effort to simplify the shopping experience.

The Bountiful Company used this feature to merge new and unestablished products with older and more popular ones. Customers saw the new products with merged reviews, giving them a false impression that they were more popular than they were.

Internal messages obtained by the FTC showed that officials were aware that the older products were doing better after the merger. One official noted in an email that customers hadn’t loved one of their stress relief products but sales “spiked” after the variation.

The variation feature is often used by companies selling clothing with many available colors so that every color is available on the same page. However, the Bountiful Company used the feature to group together products that were significantly different.

The company asked Amazon to merge new products with older products with different formulations. The Bountiful Company used the variation feature on a number of different categories including stress relief, brain health and vitamin supplements.

“Boosting your products by hijacking another product’s ratings or reviews is a relatively new tactic, but is still plain old false advertising,” Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in February when the charges were first announced.

“The Bountiful Company is paying back $600,000 for manipulating product pages and deceiving consumers,” he said.

Amazon, for its part, has cracked down on review fraud, having banned hundreds of companies over the past few years for it.

The Bountiful Company has not been banned from Amazon as of Tuesday afternoon, however. When asked by The Washington Times whether it would be, Amazon was noncommittal.

“There’s no place for fraud in Amazon’s store. We have proactive measures in place to prevent listing abuse and we continuously monitor our store,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “Our policies prohibit reviews abuse including offering incentives like gift cards to write positive reviews. We suspend, ban, and take legal action against those who violate these policies and remove inauthentic reviews.”

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