LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Now to a mystery. Who sent it? Kelly and Mike Gallivan, a retired couple from Massachusetts, got a package from Amazon back in October.
KELLY GALLIVAN: So I opened the package, and here was some gizmo gadget. And I said, Mike, what did you order this for? And he said, I didn't order the package at all. We thought it was a mistaken identity. And then the packages started coming.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And coming and coming, sometimes two a week, mostly pretty cheap stuff.
GALLIVAN: All kinds of plug-in adapters, facial mask cream, covers for phones, little compasses, key rings that had a cigarette lighter attached to it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: No return addresses on the boxes, not even invoices. So the Gallivans couldn't send anything back. At first, the Gallivans found it amusing. And then they say it started to feel creepy. They reached out to Amazon, but the company didn't seem to know what was going on. Everything was already paid for via gift card.
GALLIVAN: So Amazon is really, really good at delivering things. They're not so good at stopping things coming to your house that you have not ordered.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what's behind this mystery? Well, it turns out it may have to do with how product reviews work on Amazon's site. Ming Ooi is a co-founder of fakespot.com, which analyzes the credibility of online product reviews. Ming, thanks so much for joining us.
MING OOI: Thank you for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what do you think is behind the packages the Gallivans have kept receiving?
OOI: I think that there is either one seller or multiple sellers who are now sending the Gallivans products and then using that verified sale to leave a review on Amazon.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And why get - why are getting reviews so important for sellers right now in the Amazon Marketplace?
OOI: We have trained the consumer to make purchase decisions now largely on reviews and ratings. So if you have a product that has very little reviews or very low ratings the chances of a consumer making that purchase is very little. And so every consumer now wants to buy a product that only has high ratings and high reviews.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so the stakes are very high for these sellers. And so they're trying to now, I guess, generate fake reviews by sending the products to someone like the Gallivans and then using that information to generate positive reviews for their products.
OOI: Yes, because now verified reviews are important. So they need a way that this sale actually took place. And sending it to somebody, a real person who is on the receiving end of that is the perfect cover to write fake reviews.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the idea behind what happened to the Gallivans is that somebody is sending it to them via a gift card purchase and then using their name to leave a review?
OOI: They don't have to use the Gallivans' name to leave the review. It can be any account, right? All they have is that there is an address for the Gallivans, and it's being received. And so the Gallivans are almost like a dummy address for a dummy account.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As a consumer, is there something that I can do to spot fake reviews?
OOI: Number one, always filter the reviews. Don't just read the top rated. Filter reviews to read the most recent and then pick a random sampling of the newest reviews, the middle reviews and the oldest reviews. And to read a cross-section of, like, high-rated reviews and then low-rated - low-rating reviews, as well. Why did somebody leave a 1 star? Why did somebody leave a five star?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ming Ooi is the chief strategy officer at fakespot.com. Thank you so much.
OOI: Thank you for your time.
(SOUNDBITE OF LUNA'S "THIS TIME AROUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.