Online shoppers have traditionally relied on customer reviews as a major part of the buying process. But as scammers get more creative with their deception, consumers need to know how to spot a fake.

And these fake reviews are not only problematic for consumers and small businesses. They also challenge the security of large online marketplaces such as Amazon and Alibaba.

Over the years, online giants struggling with this problem have tried a number of techniques to curb the problem.

Amazon has sued thousands of users for violations and even developed AI programs to combat the fakers. And China's biggest e-commerce website, Alibaba, is seeking $300K in a lawsuit, going after a company that linked merchants with individuals selling the fake reviews.

The leading companies in e-commerce haven't found a lasting solution to the problem of fake reviews. For now, the battle rages on and shows no signs of slowing down.

Brands Behind Fakes

But individuals posting fake reviews are not the only ones to blame. A number of brands and companies also seem to be getting in on the trend. These companies employ the use of fake reviews to intentionally promote their own products or services.

In places like Canada and the U.K., legal actions with binding payouts have been settled against this type of activity.

In the US, lawmakers are moving a bit slower.

However, as the proliferation of fake reviews continues to expand across the globe, we will soon be forced to address its impact on businesses and consumers.

It's Not Just About Comments Anymore

But fake reviews don't always come in the form of comments. In fact, many fake reviews also come in the form of video, and specifically, video testimonials.

And with the growth of freelance service networks such as Fiverr, procuring fake video testimonials has become a simple, seamless process.

In one eye-opening case, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation tracked down a woman who had sold thousands of these fake video testimonials. For one weight loss product testimonial, she posed as a dietician of a fake medical institution. In another video, she claimed to be a financial advisor.

Clearly, fake video reviews are gaining traction as a common marketing technique. Yet with their presence, a number of ethical questions arise.

Entire Sites Made Of Fake Reviews

Another deceptive practice consumers should be aware of is fake review sites.

Some of these review sites are even operated by companies selling products in direct competition with the products they review.

And what about the reviews of listed on their competitors?

Sources say the products have never been reviewed. They also claim that products receiving top ratings are, yes, you guessed it, their own.

Here's another angle they take - review sites build tons of fake reviews, build traffic, and then generate revenue from paid advertisements.

They are badmouthing the competition through fake reviews, giving consumers inaccurate information about competitors, and giving their own products top scores. If that wasn't bad enough, they're also making money as an affiliate along the way.

Indeed, this trend of fake review sites is highly unethical and very concerning.

GOLO - One Company Fight's Back

But not all companies are accepting fake reviews as a new business reality. A few brave companies and founders refusing to be bullied are fighting back.

One such company, GOLO, a leading marketer of a holistic and natural weight loss solutions, has filed lawsuits against the fake sites and the marketers responsible for selling the reviews.

GOLO's company founder, Chris Lundin, is pushing for more accountability to protect consumers and fair business practices online.

"These publications and fake review companies do not actually test the products and provide an unbiased review like one would expect from Consumer Reports or JD Powers," says GOLO, LLC's CEO, Chris Lundin. "These companies allow fake consumer reviews to be posted and also post false customer reviews to further steer the consumer away from the marketer's products."

This is huge issue for Golo, and many other companies in the weight loss industry, where this model has become a regular occurrence.

Lundin feels it has to be stopped. Because while the affiliate sites get rich, the consumer ends of paying the price.

"The marketer has lost its prospect, the fake review company and affiliates have profited and the consumer has been misled into buying a likely substandard and potentially un-safe product."

Blurred Lines: Big Media, Big Affiliate Commissions

When The New York Times acquired The Wirecutter and it's sibling, The Sweethome, it was part of a strategy to dive deeper into the field of service journalism.

The acquired platforms provide technology product reviews, real ones in this case, and make revenue through affiliate commissions from companies like Amazon.

The New York Times acquired the companies for over $30 million. Clearly, the revenue potential here is huge, and will only keep expanding.

Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the times, assured employees that this service journalism must be conducted "within the bounds of Times standards."

Even so, the relationship between media like The New York Times and affiliate marketing platforms is something we should all keep an eye on.

Who Can You Believe?

There isn't a perfect solution to the problem of fake reviews.

At best, business people and consumers must educate themselves about the plethora of misinformation online, while keeping a close eye on the evolution of these trends. Knowledge is the first step to power.

And if you want a guarantee that a review is truthful, try speaking to human being. Just make sure it's one you know and trust.

Published on: Aug 21, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.