How to Spot a Fake Beauty Review, According to the Pros Who Know

It's been a few years since an unassuming Redditor blew open the conversation on fake beauty product reviews. The PSA, posted by an alleged former employee, accused indie skin-care brand Sunday Riley of requiring everyone at the company leave at least three favorable testimonies on Sephora's website. Screenshots of what appears to be an email listed detailed instructions on how to pull it off with aplomb: hop online, create a false profile, validate said profile by reviewing other products across the site, and hide your IP address.

The company confirmed the legitimacy of the email shortly thereafter, promising a push for more transparency moving forward, and earlier this week, agreed to settle with the Federal Trade Commission over allegations that the fake reviews had been happening for nearly two years. Sunday Riley was hit with two violations and vowed to never review its products online again, an agreement that was meant to "ensure the respondents do not engage in similar allegedly illegal conduct in the future," according to an FTC statement.

But frankly, "similar illegal conduct" is rampant in the realm of online reviews. Unfortunately (and yet, also unsurprisingly), Sunday Riley is not the only beauty brand to have partaken in the misleading practice of fake five-star ratings. For retailers, keeping tabs on the mountainous number of fraudulent accounts has become increasingly difficult.

(When the Sunday Riley scandal first broke, POPSUGAR reached out to Amazon, Ulta Beauty, and Sephora for comment on their respective reviews process. All three have specific methods to help weed out fakes; Amazon noted they "use a combination of teams of investigators and automated technology to prevent and detect inauthentic reviews at scale," while Ulta confirmed they partner with a third-party agency to help manage reviews. Sephora declined to comment beyond its original statement on the matter.)

As the adage goes, however, the best defense is a good offense. Before you spend your hard-earned money on a pot of face cream or lip balm, and you want online intel on whether it's really (as in, really really) worth it, make sure you know how to spot a fake review first. Here's how.

Follow Your Friends' Advice
Getty | James Leynse

Follow Your Friends' Advice

First and foremost, don't overlook the power of word of mouth. "There is no replacement for firsthand knowledge and personal recommendations," said Rob Gross, cofounder and COO of Fakespot, a platform that uses data extraction and algorithm engines to detect unauthentic reviews. "Always stick with the brands you know and trust recommendations from your friends who have actually spent their hard-earned money and used the product. This reduces the bias from paid reviewers and usually gets you something that you would like."

Check Out the Individual Reviewers

How many product reviews is one person leaving? Are they all five-star reviews? If someone is reviewing 20 different skincare products in a week and leaving rave reviews for all of them, they've either got a face of steel or it's a fake account.

On the flip side, if you notice that there's only one review per user profile (and especially if they don't have a profile picture), that's also red flag. "This means that someone took the time to create a Sephora account for the purpose of only leaving product reviews," said Gross. It could also mean the person leaving the review might be getting paid for waxing poetic: "In theory, you could automate the entire process, but most likely these 'one-hit wonders' are the result of a review farm campaign run by the brand. Known companies like Influenster run these programs, but lesser-known companies exist that allow brands to keep a low profile."

Look Out For Specific Language in a Review

Put simply: "If a lot of the reviews sound the same, it's a dead giveaway they were given a script and were told to alter a few things here and there." (Note that there was a similar template Sunday Riley allegedly sent out to its employees.) Rarely do they tweak their verbiage, Gross added: "Fake reviewers just want to keep getting free products and gift cards."

Even if they don't sound the same, there are a few good indicators of a fraud. Ask yourself: is the glowing review sprinkled with keywords? For example, if you're looking for reviews on a face cream and you notice repeat phrases or words like "hydrating" as well as "moisturizing," make note of that.

Take Note of the Dates in Each Review
Getty | S3studio

Take Note of the Dates in Each Review

Seeing 50 brand-new reviews posted all on the same date is enough to raise an eyebrow. "Something is wrong if a product one day has 10 reviews and the next day has 300 and then 500 and then 1,000," said Gross. When you're shopping a new product and it has no reviews, check back in a few days to see how much the volume of reviews increase. If it's substantial, "this is a dead giveaway that they are using fake reviews, especially when they are positive."

He added, "If you stumble upon a new product, we advise that you sort the reviews from oldest to newest and look for groups of reviews around the launch date and if those reviews are from people with only one review or barren accounts. Fake reviews will usually show up at the beginning of a product's publication on a platform." Or, if you notice a cluster of 4 and 5 reviews that pop up in the weeks following a one-star review, proceed with caution.

Check the One-Star Ratings

Unhappy costumers (read: people who did not get paid for their review) are less likely to hold back on their authentic opinion in a product review, and thus might leave a one-star rating. Check those out first to learn the real, unfiltered complaints about the product. Gross says if there are none, but you notice a huge amount of five-star ratings, that's a cause for suspicion.

Note Where You're Reading the Review

Individual retailers like Ulta Beauty or Sephora are a generally safe place to buy cosmetics from because they do not stock third-party sellers who can sell counterfeit products. On Amazon, you have to be mindful that any negative or positive reviews listed under a product might not be about the authentic product itself. In these cases, Gross stresses the importance of looking for "Sold by Amazon" and not "Fulfilled by Amazon" with posts. If all else fails, it's best to triple-check with the company's website to ensure Amazon is an authorized retailer.