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U.K. Probes Fake Reviews as Covid-19 Sends Shoppers Online

Amy Thomson and Ellen Milligan

(Bloomberg) --

With online shopping increasing amid Covid-19 lockdowns, the U.K.’s competition regulator is clamping down on fake and misleading reviews on popular shopping websites.

The Competition and Markets Authority said Friday it’s probing several major websites to see if they are doing enough to protect shoppers. It will examine how these sites detect, investigate and respond to suspicious reviews.

So far, the CMA has not singled any companies out and isn’t alleging that any website has acted illegally. The watchdog said it may resort to legal action if online platforms don’t do what’s required to protect consumers.

With consumers stuck at home amid the coronavirus pandemic, retail websites have been the go-to for most products. Amazon.com Inc. has seen a spike in sales since lockdowns began and has had to hire 175,000 people to cope with demand. Last year it responded to criticism by changing how it displays feedback by prioritizing ratings from customers rather than reviews.

Amazon said in an e-mailed statement it’s “happy to assist the CMA” with its inquiries.

“Customer trust has always been at the heart of our approach and we want to ensure you can shop with confidence knowing that reviews are authentic and relevant,” it said. “We welcome the fact that the CMA shares our view on the importance of robust mechanisms to tackle attempted abuse of customer reviews.”

EBay Inc. said it’s “committed to cooperating with the CMA on any investigation to tackle fake reviews.”

Instagram Commitments

The CMA’s probe comes the same day it secured commitments from Facebook Inc.-owned Instagram to tackle the risk that users can buy and sell fake reviews through the social media platform. Instagram has committed to providing more robust systems to detect and remove such material, the regulator said. Facebook and EBay have also previously assured the regulator it would put measures in place to tackle the issue.

“During lockdown, we’re more dependent than ever on online shopping, so it’s really important that the online reviews we read are genuine opinions,” said Andrea Coscelli, chief executive officer of the CMA.

(Updates with Amazon, EBay responses starting in fifth paragraph)

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