Fake online reviews could soon be made illegal to stop 'consumer catfishes'

20 July 2021, 08:33 | Updated: 20 July 2021, 08:59

The government wants to clamp down on bogus online ratings.
The government wants to clamp down on bogus online ratings. Picture: Alamy

By Emma Soteriou

Fake online reviews could soon be made illegal in the government's attempt to tackle "consumer catfishes".

Rules will be put in place to make it automatically illegal to pay someone to write, or host, the fake reviews in a clampdown on so-called 'catfishing' - tricking people into believing a review of a product might be genuine.

The proposal comes as part of a new consultation on reforming competition and consumer policy.

It will give the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) enhanced powers to tackle consumer rip-offs and bad business practices.

Other plans include a mandatory code of conduct on tech giants and changing the law so prepayment schemes - such as Christmas savings clubs - have to safeguard customers' money.

As a result, the CMA will be able to wrap up investigations faster and impose stronger penalties on firms breaking the law or failing to co-operate with the regulator's work, with companies potentially having to hand over up to 10 per cent of their global turnover in fines.

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Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: "The UK's economic recovery relies on the strength of our open markets and consumers' faith in them.

"By delivering on our commitment to bolster our competition regime, we're giving businesses confidence that they're competing on fair terms, and the public confidence they're getting a good deal."

The CMA will also be able to enforce consumer law directly instead of going through a court process which would take much longer.

However, the government said it would give the CMA more regular steers on which areas of the economy to focus its investigations and "state of competition" reports would have to be produced by the CMA for the UK's markets.

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The government also launched a consultation seeking views on the Digital Markets Unit.

The proposed new measures are expected to help British start-ups compete more fairly against big tech firms.

Consumer and Small Business Minister Paul Scully said: "Business is built on trust. When consumers part with their hard-earned cash, they've got every right to expect they'll get their money's worth. Cowboy builders aren't welcome in 21st century Britain.

"As we build back fairer, we will protect the UK public from being hoodwinked and help small businesses thrive."

Mr Scully told LBC: "There’s something like £23 billion worth of transactions that are based on reviews and if they’re fake then, clearly, they’re not getting what they wanted.

"We're trying to improve the choice for consumers, giving a level playing field.

He went on to say: "We're making it really clear that retailers have to make it absolutely clear that what they sign up for is what they get."

Nick Ferrari later asked whether the move was mostly down to online shopping taking over during the pandemic.

"It's something we were looking at before and we were working through before, but clearly, it's been fuelled by the pandemic and we want to build on what we’ve learnt over the last 14 months as well – that's why we're out for consultation," said Mr Scully.