After a recent purchase of a slim black leather case folio cover from Amazon merchant VIP Deals, some customers got back an unusual letter along with their product. "Thank you for your recent purchase from VIP Deals," the letter read. "We invite you to write a product review for the Amazon Community. In return for writing the review, we will refund your order so you will have received the product for free."
A report today in the New York Times reveals that VIP Deals, which specializes in these kinds of tablet cases -- and stun guns, too -- was offering customers a refund on products they had bought. Just one catch: Said customers needed to write positive reviews.
Three VIP patrons told the paper that they had received the letter along with a protective Kindle Fire cover valued at $59.99, which they had purchased from VIP Deals for less than $10 plus shipping.
VIP Deals has no website and uses a Los Angeles mailbox as a return address. "You are totally off base," a representative named Monica, told the NYT in an email.
But the the company's letter obtained by the paper states, "Please also rate your [five star] experience, we strive to earn 100 percent perfect, 'FIVE-STAR' scores from you!"
Based on the company's reviews, it seems the scheme was effective.
As The Times writes:
By last week, 310 out of 335 reviews of VIP Deals' Vipertek brand premium slim black leather case folio cover were five stars and nearly all the rest were four stars. The acclaim seemed authentic, barring the occasional indiscretion. "I would have done 4 stars instead of 5 without the deal," one man bluntly wrote.
Fake reviews have begun to grab the attention of regulators who are cracking down on a few firms for deceitful hyping.
Amazon, the Seattle-based online retail giant, is expected to sell 20 million Kindle Fire tablets this year. But the market is extremely competitive -- and cutthroat.
As The Times notes:
With a modest investment, VIP pushed its product far above the competition, none of which had so much enthusiasm with so little dissent. Customers like Ms. Logan, who got something they had genuinely wanted for only a small shipping charge, were of course thrilled. And Amazon racked up more revenue.
Even a few grouches could not spoil the party. "This is an egregious violation of the ratings and review system used by Amazon," a customer named Robert S. Pollock wrote in a review he titled "scam."
He was promptly chastised by another customer. This fellow, himself a seller on Amazon, argued that he had both given and gotten free items in exchange for reviews. "It is not a scam but an incentive," he wrote.
Under F.T.C. rules, when there is a connection between a merchant and someone promoting its product that affects the endorsement's credibility, it must be fully disclosed. In one case, Legacy Learning Systems, which sells music instructional tapes, paid $250,000 last March to settle charges that it had hired affiliates to recommend the videos on Web sites.
Amazon, meanwhile, was sent a copy of the VIP letter by The Times, and responded that its guidelines prohibited compensation for customer reviews. A few days later, the paper reports, the company deleted all reviews for the tablet case. It proceeded to list the item as unavailable, then took down the product page itself.