Data breach exposes widespread fake reviews on Amazon

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Cyber security researchers have discovered an unsecured database exposing a widespread scam in which Amazon customers write fake reviews in exchange for free products from Amazon vendors.

IT security experts with the Safety Detectives, an antivirus review website, found an unclaimed ElasticSearch server with no encryption or password protection.

“The server contained a treasure trove of direct messages between Amazon vendors and customers… potentially implicating more than 200,000 people in unethical activities,” the researchers wrote. “While it is unclear who owns the database, the breach demonstrates the inner workings of a prevalent issue affecting the online retail industry.”

The data breach exposed more than 13 million records and 7GB of data. The database was secured about a week after the cyber security team found it, but it remains unclear who controls it. The server’s owner appears to be based in China.

Data found on the ElasticSearch server showed how this scam works:

Shady Amazon vendors send these fake reviewers the names of products they want 5-star reviews for. The reviewers buy the products and post their “reviews” soon afterward.

Then the reviewer sends the vendor their PayPal information and Amazon profile. The reviewer secretly gets a refund from the vendor, so they keep the product for free.

“The refund for any purchased goods is actioned through PayPal and not directly through Amazon’s platform,” the Safety Detectives said. “This makes the five-star review look legitimate, so as not to arouse suspicion from Amazon moderators.”

So, not only does this ElasticSearch database facilitate a widespread scam, but its owners’ carelessness exposed users’ personal data.

“It’s reasonable to estimate that around 200,000-250,000 people were affected by this breach,” the cybersecurity researchers said. “The server appeared to be located in China, and it is thought the leak affected citizens from Europe and the USA at a minimum.”

Messages on the server included the fake reviewers’ Amazon and PayPal account details, and email addresses. Vendors’ email addresses were exposed, as well as their WhatsApp and Telegram contact info.

“Although a lot of people providing fake reviews likely know what they’re doing, we must also highlight how vendors don’t advertise that fake reviews are illegal,” the cybersecurity researchers said. “Unassuming people may have been targeted by Amazon vendors with the offer of free products in return for a review.”

“What’s clear is that whoever owns the server could be subject to punishments from consumer protection laws, and whoever is paying for these fake reviews may face sanctions for breaking Amazon’s terms of service.”