60% of Online Ratings and Reviews Are Fake

From corporate publishers with schemes to create the next Harry Potter by generating avalanches of “support” for authors and books to small-time book hustlers writing their own reviews, the online world is overrun with fraud and fakery. Online review systems are broken and untrustworthy. Amazon’s own internal memos state up to 60% of the reviews on its sites are disgenuine. 60% is a large number but based on our extensive research we believe the actual number is significantly higher.

When we started researching online rating and review fraud, Zon Alert and Fiverr Report bloggers didn’t know what we were getting into. Our initial investigation lead us to criminal crime author Carolyn Arnold and a large cabals of authors committing online fraud by faking ratings and reviews. This investigation lead us in turn to Melissa Foster and an even larger cabals of authors committing not only rating and review fraud but also driving multilevel fraudulent schemes of many types. Frauds that revolved around fake awards, fake fans or street teams, authors buying their way onto bestseller lists, organized efforts to damage the careers of other authors, organized review-for-favor schemes, consumers lured with promises of gifts and gratuities if only they reviewed certain authors’ works, authors swapping reviews with each other like bubble gum, and many other types of organized review-writing schemes.

In our investigations we identified numerous cheating authors and named them in this blog. Caught red-handed the cheating authors tried to discredit this blog and its members. Some outed for hundreds of fake reviews made claims they were innocent as they didn’t have hundreds of reviews at Amazon, knowing full well the scope of their fraud extended to many sites beyond Amazon. Knowing also some, and in cases many, of the fake reviews weren’t used to support their own books but to cause harm to others.

The list of cheats quickly grew to encompass not only authors but also friends and relations who knowingly participated. Our infamous list of badly behaving unethical authors grew to include

A M Hargrove
A Meredith Walters
Aaron Pogue
Alle Wells
Amanda Hocking
Ann Swann
Ashley Fontainne
B V Larson
Bella Forrest
Betty Dravis
Blake Crouch
Brandon Sanderson
C C Cole
Carmen DeSousa
Carolyn Arnold
Cassia Leo
Cege Smith
Cheryl Kaye Tardif
Collette Scott
D A Graystone
D Ryan Leask
Daniel Arenson
David A Wells
Debora Geary
Dixie Goode
E L Lindley
Edie Claire
Elizabeth Reyes
Emma Chase
Erica Stevens
Erin Hunter
Frederick Lee Brooke
Gail McHugh
H M Ward
Hugh Howey
Ilona Andrews
J A Hunsinger
J A Konrath
J S Scott
James Dean
Jasinda Wilder
Jay Allan
Jennifer Chase
Jessica Sorensen
Jillian Dodd
Joanna Lee Doster
K Bromberg
K J Bennett
Karen DeLabar
Karen Vaughan
Kenneth Hoss
Kerry Reis
Kirkus MacGowan
L J Kentowski
Linda Hawley
Linda S Prather
Lorena Angell
M R Mathias
M Todd Gallowglas
Mallory Monroe
Marni Mann
Mary Campisi
Matthew Mather
Melinda Leigh
Melissa Foster
Michael G Manning
Pamela Fagan Hutchins
R J Palacio
Rachel Dover
Rebecca Forster
Richard Hale
Rick Bylina
Rick Soper
Robert Pruneda
Rosie Cochran
Ryk Brown
Sandy Wolters
Stacy Eaton
Stephanie Lisa Tara
T R Harris
Tarryn Fisher
Todd Bush
Zach Fortier

As we kept digging we kept uncovering more and more cheating authors including hustlers like C J Ellisson, Martin Crosbie, A J Cosmo, Samantha Chase, Elle Casey, Jennifer Blake, K D Emerson, Rachel Yu, Michael Yu, Eve Carter, Helen Hanson, Lily Lexington, Michael Baisden, Sharlene Alexander, Monique Martin, Gerald Hawksley, David Dalglish, CC MacKenzie, Rosalind James and Alexia Purdy. Some of which are small-time cheats, while others are huge fraudsters earning tens of thousands a month through deceptive practices, unethical behavior and outright fakery.

Not to mention even bigger cheats: B V Larson, Hugh Howey, H M Ward, John Locke, Melissa Foster, Amanda Hocking, et al.

The research left us disillusioned and angry. We believe the rating and reviews systems are so broken the only way to fix them is for all online ratings and reviews to be removed or for every site to have a widely displayed disclaimer that reader ratings and reviews cannot be relied upon to determine the quality or merchantability of any product. We won’t be holding our breath for such things to happen and you shouldn’t either. Instead, you should report the aforementioned fraudsters wherever their fake reviews appear and demand justice.

Just how much fakery does one author need?

Self-published Carolyn Arnold has been busy but her more than 200 fake Amazon reviews are the tip of an iceberg.  We also tracked Arnold’s dubious activities on other sites, connecting friends and authors that Carolyn Arnold frequently talked to on social media to the reviews they were writing to push sales of her books.

Arnold had no fear of being caught. She was so brazen about her activities she openly discussed them and gave pointers to authors who wanted to follow along. A huge contrast from Melissa Foster who expressly tried to keep her activities hidden and quiet while she traded and bought her way to many hundreds of reviews.

However, an odd Arnold tactic had Zon Alert bloggers temporarily confused. Several times we noticed reviews of Arnold’s books had disappeared. These reviews were ones written by close associates whose activities we also were tracking, like Carmen Desousa, Ashley Fontainne, Collette Scott, Richard Hale, Ann Swann, Kirkus MacGowan, and Zach Fortier.

At first we thought perhaps Amazon had caught on to Arnold’s tactics and was removing reviews. There were rumors going around that Amazon was in fact removing reviews being traded between authors as it was and remains a widespread known problem. These disappearing reviews didn’t seem to be part of that. Instead they were reviews Arnold friends had written of all or many Arnold books, usually some of the first reviews written of a book in fact. To Zon Alert bloggers, it appeared they were trying to cover their tracks, to make their dubious activities less obvious.

Disappearing reviews is something we found on Goodreads too. Again it was older reviews, usually some of the first reviews written of an Arnold book, that were disappearing. Based on what we saw, we believe Carolyn Arnold used the early reviews by close associates as fodder to get even more reviews out of other associates. When these early reviews were no longer needed, they were removed.

As we discussed previously, tracking Carolyn Arnold led us to closed groups on various sites where Arnold and others traded tactics and made plans, such as for writing reviews of each others books on Amazon, rating each other on Goodreads, becoming each others fans on Goodreads, voting up favorable reviews, voting down or reporting unfavorable reviews.

Members also would get their friends and family members to review other members books.

Authors who reviewed Carol Arnold’s books on Goodreads and were members of these groups

A M Hargrove http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5338829.A_M_Hargrove

Alle Wells http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5030886.Alle_Wells

Ann Swann http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5420711.Ann_Swann

C C Cole http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4038165.C_C_Cole

Cege Smith http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5329790.Cege_Smith

Collette Scott http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4929698.Collette_Scott

D A Graystone http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5089051.D_A_Graystone

D Ryan Leask http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4874901.D_Ryan_Leask

Dixie Goode http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4418209.Dixie_Dawn_Miller_Goode

E L Lindley http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5753702.E_L_Lindley

Frederick Lee Brooke http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4856232.Frederick_Lee_Brooke

Joanna Lee Doster http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/461445.Joanna_Lee_Doster

K J Bennett http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5300157.K_J_Bennett

Karen Vaughan http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1378692.Karen_Vaughan

Kenneth Hoss http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4897439.Kenneth_Hoss

Kerry Reis http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6491046.Kerry_Reis

L J Kentowski http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5382939.L_J_Kentowski

Linda Hawley http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4868074.Linda_Hawley

Linda S Prather http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1031821.Linda_S_Prather

Lorena Angell http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4976775.Lorena_Angell

M Todd Gallowglas http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4883304.M_Todd_Gallowglas

Marni Mann http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5400988.Marni_Mann

Melinda Leigh http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5141609.Melinda_Leigh

Pamela Fagan Hutchins http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/682431.Pamela_Fagan_Hutchins

Rachel Dover http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5831003.Rachel_Dove

Rick Bylina http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5157782.Rick_Bylina

Rick Soper http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6872897.Rick_Soper

Robert Pruneda http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/967521.Robert_Pruneda

Rosie Cochran http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3314072.Rosie_Cochran

Sandy Wolters http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4772120.Sandy_Wolters

As parts of these operations are much like pyramid schemes, there are varying levels of activities. Authors at the bottom of these schemes, like Carolyn Arnold and Melissa Foster, recruit new authors to the top of the scheme. The authors at the bottom of the scheme became increasingly successful, the others not so much as you’ll see if you examine the links provided.

Based on our findings and tracking of Carolyn Arnold’s activities, we found the following on Goodreads. Arnold recruited friends to write reviews, give ratings, and add books to their shelves.

57 of 72  reviews of Ties That Bind were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

172 of 193 ratings of Ties That Bind were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

577 of 589 people who “added” Ties That Bind to their shelves were fake, from the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

20 of 23  reviews of Eleven were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

59 of 65 ratings of Eleven were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

94 of 99 people who “added” Eleven to their shelves were fake, from the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

6 of 7  reviews of Justified were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

37 of 41 ratings of Justified were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

74 of 78 people who “added” Justified to their shelves were fake, from the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

14 of 17  reviews of Pearls of Deception were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

29 of 36 ratings of Pearls of Deception were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

60 of 63 people who “added” Pearls of Deception to their shelves were fake, from the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

7 of 7  reviews of Sacrifice were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

22 of 27 ratings of Sacrifice were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

51 of 56 people who “added” Sacrifice to their shelves were fake, from the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

6 of 11  reviews of Assassination of a Dignitary were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

12 of 20 ratings of Assassination of a Dignitary were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

62 of 67 people who “added” Assassination of a Dignitary to their shelves were fake, from the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

If these numbers are enough to churn stomachs, wait till our eye-popping Melissa Foster research and accompanying Melissa Foster Report are published.

Please don’t confuse the legitimate children’s author, Carolyn Arnold, with the self-published Carolyn Arnold. The children’s author Carolyn Arnold has written many successful books, over 100 in fact. The self-published Carolyn Arnold is the subject of this blog.

Crime Author Criminal: Carolyn Arnold

Earlier we blogged about the fake reviews of Carolyn Arnold on Amazon but those 200 fake reviews are the tip of the iceberg. Carolyn Arnold’s dubious practices are plentiful.

Before we get started, please don’t confuse the legitimate children’s author, Carolyn Arnold, with the self-published Carolyn Arnold. The children’s author Carolyn Arnold has written many successful books, over 100 in fact. The self-published Carolyn Arnold is the subject of this blog.

In the descriptions of her books, in her bio and on her personal sites, self-published Carolyn Arnold often adds gushing praise written by the same author friends with whom she swaps reviews.  Arnold  prominently lists that a book was selected as one of the Top 12 fiction books of 2011. The phrasing changes from time to time and currently reads

“Arnold’s imagination and attention to detail do not leave any loose ends. Exciting.”
–MIAMI BOOKS EXAMINER’S “Top 12 Fiction Books of 2011” list.

Reading this you might think this is a legitimate review source but upon examination you’ll see it’s just one more dubious practice in Arnold’s long con game. Examiner.com is a site where freelancers can share about anything. The site has over 100,000 freelancers who contribute, most of which aren’t paid anything. They are unpaid bloggers.

Miami Books Examiner is the tagline of one of the bloggers, just as another blogger is The Hunger Games Examiner. Miami Books Examiner is in fact the tagline for Rosa St.Claire, a friend of an Arnold friend.

Oddly enough, Arnold’s book actually isn’t even one of the Top 12 in the list as implied. Her book is part of an additional “special recommendation” section.

Using fake review sources seems to be a tactic used by others Arnold was swapping reviews with. These sources are made to sound legitimate but don’t hold up upon examination. Not much different from the way Carolyn Arnold misappropriates the name of the legitimate children’s author of the same name, often trying to use the other author’s reputation and accomplishments as her own.

Whether pen name or real name, misuse of another author’s name is a tactic of Arnold and her author friends. More on this in upcoming posts.

The Many Faces of Self-published Carolyn Arnold

The biggest fake review scams we discovered in our research also are  some of the first we came across. The impetus for this blog in fact was a book by self-published Carolyn Arnold called Ties That Bind. The book was by far the worst book one of our member bloggers had ever read but was being praised to the heavens by reviewers on Amazon.  Not just in a few reviews either, but in so many reviews it boggled the mind. In fact, all of Carolyn Arnold’s books were being similarly praised, though upon reading they were all terrible.

What we were able to determine with extensive sleuthing is that reviews largely were written by author friends of Carolyn Arnold. Friends that Carolyn Arnold frequently talked to on social media. Carolyn Arnold was so brazen about her unethical tactics she openly discussed them on social media. She even gave pointers to authors who want to commit similar acts.

We tracked the activities of Carolyn Arnold for some time and it led us to a large group of authors who were each others fans and reviewers. Tracking Carolyn Arnold led us to closed groups on various sites where Arnold and others traded tactics and made plans, such as for writing reviews of each others books on Amazon, rating each other on Goodreads, becoming each others fans on Goodreads, voting up favorable reviews, voting down or reporting unfavorable reviews.

Members also would get their friends and family members to review other members books. It’s how many of the members got hundreds of reviews.

Authors who reviewed Carol Arnold’s books and were members of these groups

Collette Scott
Betty Dravis
Richard Hale
Joanna Lee Doster
D A Graystone
Ashley Fontainne
Sandy Wolters
Zach Fortier
Stacy Eaton
Carmen DeSousa
Jennifer Chase
Todd Bush
Kenneth Hoss
Ann Swann
J A Hunsinger
Karen DeLabar
Kirkus MacGowan
Linda Hawley

All these authors have dozens or hundreds of fake reviews too and will be discussed in future posts.

Based on social media posts we were able to identify friends that Carolyn Arnold engaged with frequently, who also wrote reviews and acted as her fan base

Richard Goodship
Sherry Buikema
Sheilagh Lee
Andrew Butters
D L Atkinson
April Plummer
Karen Vaughan
Brooke Frederick
Patricia Robinson
Glenda Bixler
Debbie Grimes
Tina Samuels
Robyn Ryan
Vicki Hancock
L Smith
Joe Wilcox
Katie Jennings
Michael Stedman
Darlene Langley

Based on our findings and tracking of Carolyn Arnold’s activities, we found the following on Amazon

124 of 143 reviews of Ties That Bind were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

61 of 68 reviews of Eleven were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

31 or 38 reviews of Justified were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

28 of 30 reviews of Sacrifice  were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

29 of 32 reviews of Assassination of a Dignitary  were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

5 of 5 reviews of Hart’s Choice  were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

10 of 10 reviews of Rings of a Tree  were fake, written by the authors friends, including the authors and friends listed above

We’ll have more on Carolyn Arnold, these authors, and fake reviews in upcoming articles.

Please don’t confuse the legitimate children’s author, Carolyn Arnold, with the self-published Carolyn Arnold. The children’s author Carolyn Arnold has written many successful books, over 100 in fact. The self-published Carolyn Arnold is the subject of this blog.

What is a troll?

Trolls were one of many unexpected things we learned about in our research into unethical tactics and fake reviews. In the context of online discussions, a troll isn’t a mythical monster or a child’s creation rather a troll is someone with ill intentions.

Trolls make outrageous claims. Trolls start online fights by saying hurtful things. Trolls attack others with words. Trolls do this to get a reaction. The stronger the reaction, the better, as far as trolls are concerned. Trolls do this because they want to get people angry. Trolls want to cause damage. Trolls want to cause harm.

With regard to books and authors, trolls often are the ones writing spurious commentary and reviews. Trolls do this to take down certain authors while promoting others. Trolls are plentiful at Amazon and Goodreads. They’re also present at Angie’s List.

It might surprise you to learn there are professional trolls. Professional trolls come in a few different varieties. Some work in marketing where their goal is to push a brand, book or author while devaluing another brand, book or author. Our resident marketing expert spent over a year tracking professional trolls before she stumbled upon the worst of the worst in professional trolling: hacker trolls.

Hacker trolls are different from most other trolls. They’re around to cause severe damage, promote extreme agendas, and do absolute harm while gaining recognition for their exploits. The more harm they cause, the higher the likelihood they will be accepted at certain closed sites and chat rooms where hacker trolls exchange stories, build their reps by detailing their exploits, and exchange tactics and ideas.

A clear warning: Stay away from dedicated hacker trolls. These trolls destroy lives and livelihoods for enjoyment.

What is a sock puppet?

When we looked at how people were cheating at Amazon, Goodreads, Angie’s List and elsewhere, one of the first things we encountered were fake accounts, also called sock puppets or puppet accounts. Our first thought was that fake accounts were simply people using multiple accounts with made up names or aliases. As we kept digging in, we found there was much more to it.

Accounts that were obviously fake often had verified purchases, real names or were otherwise verified. Frequently, though not always, the fake accounts would have many reviews or reviews written over a period of several years but they were often reviews of odd items, like a screwdriver, a fountain pen or a baking pan.

As we monitored fake accounts over time, we realized there often were patterns. Some fake accounts were being used to post spurious reviews. Most fake accounts were being used to post supportive reviews. All fake accounts seemed to have agendas, either good or bad.

We often were able to separate the pros from the semi-pros and amateurs. A pro was someone who’d been at the fake account game for a long time and knew what they were doing. Pros seemed to create new accounts frequently, such as weekly or daily. Pros bought and reviewed items in their fake accounts periodically. Pros seemed to have fake accounts that went back years.

We looked at the products being reviewed by fake accounts. We saw different patterns for different types of goods and decided to focus mostly on books. With books, sock puppets are used mostly by the authors themselves, people the authors know, and people authors pay. With books, sock puppets also are used to post spurious reviews. Many pros seemed to be involved wherever we looked.