Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Fake review report

Which is worse, a desperate self-published author named Melissa Foster buying reviews “as fast as you can provide them” or a professionally published author named JA Konrath trying to buy 10000-packs of ratings? Because while I worked undercover, I saw it all.

My job was to facilitate. Connect those wanting reviews with those writing reviews. As a former marketing executive, I was a natural for the role, as I facilitated I recorded every dirty detail for Zon Alert.

One of the worst offenders was Melissa Foster who purchased over 250 reviews, as determined by reviews received from for-pay review writers. But that alone doesn’t make Melissa Foster one of the worst. What made her the worst is that her 250 reviews purchased were only the beginning as many of the paid reviewers also worked for other paid review companies. 

By connecting the other Melissa Foster reviews these reviewers wrote to the review writers and the companies they wrote reviews for, Zon Alert and I identified other companies offering paid review services. In total, 129 paid reviewers wrote 762 reviews for Melissa Foster, using 568 accounts.

From Melissa Foster’s correspondence: 

“Chasing Amanda got to #10 on Amazon’s Bestselling Kindle list. Thank reviewers for buying yesterday.”

“Wow, what a few weeks this has been! Can I get 50 more?”

“not all the reviews for Amazon ... Goodreads reviewers should rate, add my other books” 

“how great it felt to have over 2000 ratings for Goodreads”

“I’m gearing up for a blog tour. ... I need more reviews.”

“Can reviewers vote in the Amazon breakthrough novel award?”

“Tremendous gratitude for the Chasing Amanda reviews ... now on Amazon’s Top (100) Rated Fiction list!”

With so many fake reviews, the bigger question becomes what should be done with the Melissa Fosters of the world? Amazon doesn't seem to care about fake reviews. 

In 2012, self-published author John Locke admitted to buying 300 fake reviews from and Amazon left every fake review in tact. What John Locke never admitted to, however, were reviews purchased elsewhere. 

In all, John Locke purchased close to 1,000 reviews. These reviews were for Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, and other sites. A worse offender than Melissa Foster? If you don't include Melissa Foster's many fake awards, perhaps. 

Melissa Foster also had organized friends-family review writing schemes though. Schemes that account for the bulk of Foster's remaining reviews and ratings. Some 2100 reviews and 3500 ratings in all.

What about all the other writers who bought reviews from, and the many other paid-review companies? Tracking the paid-review accounts leads to some surprising names, like Ilona Andrews( fantasy author), R J Palacio (children's author), J A Konrath (mystery writer), Brandon Sanderson (fantasy author), Erin Hunter (fantasy author), and James Dean (children's author). Some predictable names too who purchased 500 or more reviews:

Debora Geary
Jasinda Wilder
Gail McHugh
Jessica Sorensen
Jillian Dodd
Rebecca Forster
Mary Campisi
Amanda Hocking
B V Larson
Blake Crouch
Aaron Pogue
Hugh Howey
Erica Stevens
Matthew Mather
Cheryl Kaye Tardif
Ryk Brown
Daniel Arenson
M R Mathias
David A Wells
T R Harris
Jay Allan
Mallory Monroe
Edie Claire
Stephanie Lisa Tara
K Bromberg
Tarryn Fisher
Cassia Leo
Michael G Manning
Emma Chase
H M Ward
J S Scott
A Meredith Walters
Bella Forrest

Predictable because reviews of these author's books aren't just a little too perfect, they are in some cases perfect for Amazon or Goodreads. John Locke was clever enough to ensure 1 and 2 star reviews were added. Some of the aforementioned authors have books with only perfect ratings. A dead giveaway for fakery.  

Friday, September 6, 2013

Fake writing awards are an epidemic

Fake writing awards have official-sounding names like San Francisco Book Festival Awards, Global eBooks Awards, Readers Favorite Awards, and Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Some authors like Rachel Thompson several of these fake awards. Other authors like Melissa Foster have numerous fake awards.

Real awards are selective and industry recognized. Real awards have strict rules and careful oversight. At the least, authors must be nominated by their publishers, bookstores, library staff. Books are only eligible for the year they were published and only in a specific category. Real awards launch careers and establish author leaders in the industry.

Fake awards come from companies that are neither selective nor industry recognized. Illegitimate awards don’t have strict rules or careful oversight. Fake awards allow anyone willing to pay their entry fees to enter. They allow authors to enter a book in many categories and as many times as they like and for as many years as they like. The poster child for fake writing awards is Melissa Foster. Foster has a dozen of these fake awards so far and was outed for her fakery by Zon Alert.

Melissa Foster apparently was so desperate to be an award winning author she even got friends to act as contest judges so they could then vote for her. How desperate does an author have to be to do something like this? Pretty desperate it seems. Shame on Melissa Foster and her fakery.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Shameful Review Buyers

Of the authors at the center of "review" schemes, Melissa Foster was one of the most egregious. Melissa Foster's scams revolved around questionable awards, questionable reviews, and questionable promotion tactics involving friends, family, and other authors.

Melissa Foster is the poster child for fake writing awards. Legitimate awards are highly selective and recognized throughout the publishing industry.  Legitimate awards have strict rules and careful oversight. At the least, authors must be nominated by their publishers, bookstores, library staff. Books are only eligible for the year they were published and only in a specific category/genre. Legitimate awards launch careers and establish author leader in the industry.

Illegitimate awards come from companies that are neither highly selective nor recognized throughout the publishing industry. Illegitimate awards don't have strict rules or careful oversight. Illegitimate awards allow anyone willing to pay their entry fees to enter. They allow authors to enter a book in as many categories and as many times as they like and for as many years as they like. If an author enters books over and over for as many years and in many categories as Foster did, a win is almost assured. In fact, entering the same books over and over in multiple categories over many years assured Melissa Foster of multiple wins.

Melissa Foster in fact claims five awards from a for-pay award company that appears to give an award of some kind to every book entered. Several awards from a company that runs 17 different award programs and allows authors to register for all 17 awards using one multiple entry form.

Awards she couldn't win through this method? Melissa Foster appears to have recruited author friends and others to volunteer as judges. When Melissa Foster won, Melissa Foster then acted as a judge in a different year to return the favor. She became so adept at the scheme she tried to start her own awards program. Read the full Zon Alert report on Melissa Foster's fake awards.

When it comes to fake reviews, Melissa Foster out "Arnolded" Carolyn Arnold in friends and family reviews, making a science of it until friends and family had so many duplicate accounts Zon Alert bloggers lost track of them all.

Intermixed with friends and family reviews are reviews traded with other authors. Unlike Arnold who does her own review reciprocating, Foster often has others in her pyramid-like scheme participants do the reciprocating.

In what seems like an attempt to cover up her questionable activities, Melissa Foster started buying reviews, asking for reviews "as fast as you can provide them." Racking up over 250 review purchases, as determined by reviews received from for-pay review writers.

Other shameful review buyers, I'll get to in upcoming editions of The Fiverr Report. Look for reports on

Just for starters. Many more to follow.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

When the Crime Author is a Criminal

By now you may have heard of self-published Carolyn Arnold and her epic fake review scam involving hundreds of fake reviews and ratings on Amazon, Goodreads, and other sites. Zon Alert has been blogging about her nefarious activities for some time now. If you haven't heard of the queen of fake reviews and her "promotion" networks where authors swap reviews like candy, act as each others fans, and generally work schemes, let me enlighten you.

The Many Faces of Carolyn Arnold article was an eye opener revealing how far some people will go to try to sell bad books and by bad I mean absolutely horrendous. The article also details her co-conspiritors in crime:

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

Together these authors have not just thousands of fake reviews on Amazon and other sites but thousands upon thousands of fakes. What makes this case even more interesting is how Carolyn Arnold is at the center of it all.

Crime Author Criminal: Carolyn Arnold was an article about other dubious tactics of self-published Carolyn Arnold and these authors, identifying other tactics these authors are using try to boost sales of their books. Not only does self-published Carolyn Arnold try to misuse the reputation and name recognition of an established, recognized children's author of the same name, Carolyn Arnold also uses fake media sources.

It's enough to make one's stomach churn.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The evolution of review fraud

According to a former Amazon insider, Amazon's own internal memos state up to 60% of reviews on its site aren't genuine. The reviews aren't real opinions from real readers. They are faked, bought/sold, solicited, swapped/traded.

Is it any wonder then that Zon Alert bloggers stumbled onto a massive fake review operation run by self-published Carolyn Arnold, involving dozens of Arnold's author friends.

The massive operation with self-published Carolyn Arnold at the center of it worked like this: The authors acted as each others' fan base, writing many reviews of each others' books under their own names and assumed names on Amazon. Using their own names and assumed names, they wrote each others' reviews on Goodreads, became each others' fans on Goodreads, rated each others' books on Goodreads.

As it progressed the authors recruited family members to write reviews of the other authors' books. Family members had already been writing reviews for the authors themselves.

It went on and on until these authors had amassed hundreds of reviews, hundreds of ratings - as Zon Alert bloggers watched them talk and boast about their activities on social media.

Parts of the operation were much like a pyramid scheme. Authors at the bottom of the scheme recruited new authors to the top of the scheme. As the authors at the bottom of the scheme became increasingly successful, the scheme slowed, however, leaving authors at the top of the scheme with less and less until parts of the scheme crumbled.

Carolyn Arnold's activities also led Zon Alert bloggers to the activities of Melissa Foster, Wendy Higgins, A M Hargrove, Linda S Prather, Elizabeth Reyes, and others who had their own "networks" and who also were buying reviews from known paid reviewers.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Paid Reviews are Bad for Everyone

Paid reviews are an epidemic. They are everywhere. They are on Amazon, Angie's List, Goodreads, and just about everywhere else reviews can be written.
Paid reviews are reviews authors, publishers, and others offering goods or services pay to receive. That "payment" can take many forms. It can be in cash, goods, or services. However, paid reviews bought with cash are the most common. Reviews bought with an exchange of goods and services are less common but are equally bad. 
Paid reviews differ from legitimate review sources that charge fees in several important ways. With legitimate review sources, such as an industry magazine or newspaper, someone pays a fee to have this recognized source read and review the product and gets one and only one review from that recognized source. The review comes specifically from that source and doesn’t appear to be a  review from a consumer. The review may be good or bad.
With paid review companies, the buyer can purchase as many reviews as they want. If the buyer wants 50 reviews, they can buy 50 reviews. Every review will appear to have been written by a consumer who purchased the product or service and here is a spoken or unspoken understanding the purchased reviews will be supportive.
Some companies allow people to buy reviews for as little as $5. For an extra fee these companies will even ensure the reviewers buy the product and are verified. On Amazon, having a verified purchase gives the paid review extra significance. 
With all these reviews being bought and paid for every single day, real reviews from real consumers with real opinions are becoming endangered species. According to a fellow blogger at Zon Alert who worked at Amazon, Amazon's own internal memorandums suggested that Amazon itself believes that up to 60% of the reviews on it's site weren't genuine. The reviews aren't real opinions from real readers. They are faked, bought/sold, solicited, swapped/traded. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Fiverr Report

The online world is overrun with reviews that were bought and paid for. As a former marketing executive for a large East Coast firm, I know more about this dirty business than most people, so I decided to do something about it and The Fiverr Report is the result.

I started out working with others as dissatisfied with the state of the publishing industry as I am and together we started investigating fake reviews. To us, a fake review is

  • Any review written by an author's friends, relatives or acquaintances, especially reviews requested by the authors themselves to push up their ratings.
  • Any review written by the author using fake names or puppet accounts, especially when the author has many such accounts.
  • Any review bought and paid for, especially those from less-than-reputable or questionable companies.
  • Any review swapped or traded between authors.
  • Any review bought by promising readers free kindles or paying readers any other kickbacks.

The result of our research is being made public at Zon Alert. As the marketing expert on the team, I researched companies that were being paid to write reviews. I knew some companies were doing this and had seen their handiwork. I started my research with companies I knew were doing this, expecting to find a few more. I did not expect to find an entire cottage industry, involving dozens of companies.

This blog is named for the company investigated first and a company I worked undercover at for two years where services, including review writing services, are bought and sold for $5.