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Smart Buying

How to Size Up Online Reviews

Shoppers need a sharp eye to spot shills and saboteurs.

Before Rebekah and Andrew Beck of Falls Church, Va., bought their new digital single-lens-reflex camera, they scoured online product reviews to help them decide between two models. Rebekah finds the anonymous comments helpful. But she has wondered, "Are they just company minions putting up positive reviews?" Could negative reviews be the work of unscrupulous competitors?

The Federal Trade Commission, state attorneys general and civil attorneys all have a role in policing fake reviews. The FTC recently looked into a case in which bloggers who wrote about a retail event received gifts in return. Review site is being sued by business owners who claim it manipulates reviews -- a charge the company denies. In New York, a franchise business that performs face-lifts settled charges that company employees posted fake testimonials on the Web. Such cases aside, online reviews remain largely unregulated, says Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University. Vetting is done mostly by the Web sites that run the reviews, and standards vary widely, says Goldman.

Be wary of a string of one-way reviews, positive or negative; look for a mix and ignore extremes. Visit multiple sites and seek out reviewers who have been on the site for a while, posting frequently about multiple items -- especially if their reviews get high marks from the site's other users. Signs of a planted review include a laundry list of product features or the same phrase repeated on multiple review sites. Before you share your own opinion, be warned: You could get sued for dissing a business online.

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