It took a long time for some retailers, such as Costco, to buy into the value of allowing customer reviews of products. Some feared alienating suppliers if customers offered overly candid comments, while others worried more about opening a Pandora's Box that could not be policed, a place where the authenticity of both positive and negative reviews could never be truly known. A rather blatant incident that was widely reported last week (Jan. 16) involving Amazon and electronics manufacturer Belkin has sharply reinforced those fears among e-tailers. Even worse, it has the potential to shatter the confidence of online shoppers. Unlike almost anything else in E-Commerce, consumer reviews are based on pure faith. If a product doesn't match its description or fails to perform properly, there are mechanisms for refunds and adjustments. But if an anonymous consumer said the product was great and it turned out to be horrible, what's the recourse? The next point, involving what the unhappy customer does or thinks right after that, is crucial. Does the consumer think, "I should have known better than to trust that anonymous idiot"? In that case, the venting is harmless. But what if the consumer thinks, "Wonder if that person was planted? And by whom? The retailer or the manufacturer?" Retailer after retailer has seen the surprisingly strong impact that consumer reviews can have on revenue. But if consumers start to feel they're being duped, they'll stop reading those reviews and the sales will drop right back down. Who can afford that in this economy? Here are some of the details of what happened with Amazon: A Belkin employee was caught paying people to write phony positive reviews about Belkin products and post them on Amazon.com, Buy.com and Newegg.com. Showing a jaw-droppingly incredible amount of audacity, the fellow was actually using Amazon's Mechanical Turk service to hire people to "Write a Positive 5/5 Review for Product on Website." Hats off to Arlen Parsa, who exposed the shenanigans on his blog, The Daily Background. His write-up generated all kinds of publicity about the case and resulted in an acknowledgement from Belkin that it happened, a vow that it was not authorized and a promise it will be cleaned up. But the drama didn't end there. Gizmoto ran a follow-up story in which it posted a cut-and-pasted letter, supposedly penned by an anonymous Belkin worker, who said the online review payola scheme was typical of the type of underhanded activity commonplace at Belkin. That published report itself has the potential to be deliciously ironic. Is that letter real? Or could it have been written by a Belken competitor? Aware Of The Issue As for Amazon's part in the soap opera, spokeswoman Patricia Smith said customer-written product reviews have always been a popular feature of Amazon even though the company met with some resistance from manufacturers at the outset. "It's something we were criticized for right from the beginning," Smith said. "The manufacturers asked, `Why would you want to discourage people from buying a product?' We always felt we wanted to put both the negative and the positive out there. It doesn't do us any good to have a customer buy something only to return it a week or two later." Essentially, she said Amazon does what it can to catch and delete fake reviews (she declined detailing those methods) but believes the benefits of the reviews outweigh the risks. As for the use, in this case, of Mechanical Turk to pay people to, as Smith put it, "game the system," she said the Mechanical Turk team is "aware" of the issue and working on ways to thwart such misbehavior. Too bad those measures weren't in place when Bayard sought people for "positive review writing" and encouraged them thusly: Always give a 100 percent rating; Write as if you own the product and are using it; Tell a story of why you bought it and how you are using it; and Mark any other negative reviews as "not helpful" once you post yours. Is it time to use automated and manually reviewed mechanisms to verify the legitimacy of all reviews and comments? It's likely going to be worth it, but only if most retailers do the same. It will only take a few more incidents like this one to ruin customer comments for all.