Brushing: The Scam that Fakes Rankings & Reviews

Written by Jen McKeeman

09 March 2023

The other day I was tidying out a wardrobe, when I came across a parcel I had forgotten about. It arrived 11 years ago (I know, I should do a clear out more often!), delivered in the run up to Christmas, long before my fraud writing career. Addressed to me, packaged up carefully, the sender’s address was in China and it puzzled me at the time as I wasn’t expecting an Amazon delivery. 

I opened it up that December day in 2011, wondering if it was an early Christmas gift from a relative for one of my children, or perhaps a purchase I had forgotten I made. It was neither of those things. It was… a robot dog.



I checked my Amazon account to see if someone had purchased it through my account - it was addressed to me after all - or if there was notification of a delivery error. There wasn’t. I put it in the wardrobe and figured I’d be contacted to return it. However, I wasn’t. No one ever contacted me about it.

Christmas came and went and the robot dog remained in the wardrobe with no one claiming it. I felt a bit uneasy - why did a company in China have my name and postal address and why were     they sending me a parcel I hadn’t ordered or paid for?

Fast forward a few years until one day I’m reading about brushing scams and I realise that’s what it was. 

Fake orders boost sales and marketplace rankings

Brushing is a scam where bad actors send packages to people who didn’t purchase them to generate fake orders, increasing their sales volumes and boosting their rankings on marketplaces. Unscrupulous sellers then create fake accounts using these peoples’ names to write fake 5 star reviews and further increase their ratings. The scam gives the impression that the recipient is a verified buyer who has written positive reviews for the product. Items that are cheap to ship in large quantities, such as magnetic eyelashes, bluetooth accessories, and childrens’ toys are popular products for this type of fraud.

Proven to be a profitable, tried and tested scam for bad actors, it would seem little has changed in more than a decade. However, these days scammers are wise to the fact that they don’t even need to send their actual product - an empty box will do. This is sufficient to generate an order, create a delivery tracking number, pad sales volumes and boost (fake) positive reviews. And, unfortunately, the acceleration of e-commerce in the last three years has provided even more opportunities for the scam to be carried out.


Review fraud has many guises

Fake reviews can be very profitable for unscrupulous sellers looking to boost their sales - with brushing being just one of the many ways bad actors engage in review fraud. From incentivised reviews in exchange for free products or coupons, to seemingly harmless localised behaviour where sellers ask family/friends to write glowing reviews, and review brokers being paid to write fake reviews at scale, bad actors know how to take advantage.

And they’re not limited to fake positive reviews. Sellers looking to target competitors can write/pay for fake negative reviews to harm reputations and businesses. Some even write overtly fake reviews for competitors with the hope they will be suspected of review fraud!


Continual monitoring and behavioural analytics 

So, what can be done to tackle this growing challenge on your platform? The most effective way to combat reviews abuse is to use continual monitoring and behavioural analytics to understand what’s happening with your reviews. This approach goes beyond content analysis. It allows you to spot patterns of suspicious and connected behaviour in your data and identify the worst offenders. And with regulators turning their attention to how they can protect consumers from this harmful practice, there’s never been a better time to address the problem.

If you would like to find out more, check out our recent paper on ‘Detecting Fake Reviews through Behavioural Analysis and Network Science’, or get in touch if you’d like to chat with one of our experts.

Photo by ANIRUDH on Unsplash