Are Fake Google Reviews Illegal in Singapore?

Last updated on March 5, 2024

customer reviews on phone

In 2023, the US Federal Trade Commission proposed new rules targeting businesses that buy, sell and manipulate online reviews. Under these new rules, businesses can be fined up to US$50,000 for each fake review, for each time a consumer sees it. This highlights the seriousness of the problem of fake reviews online, which is not just prevalent in the US but in every other corner of the world wide web.

As a business owner, you may be curious about whether fake reviews are in fact illegal in Singapore, as well as the legal measures that you can take against fake reviews posted about your business online. This article will cover the following topics:

What is a Fake Review?

A fake review is an inauthentic review of a product / service, which is produced with the objective of either artificially improving or damaging the rating of that product / service. The review is said to be inauthentic if it is not provided by a customer who has actually used the product / service, and hence the review is not a true reflection of the value of the product / service. For example, the review may have been auto-generated using computer software that is specifically designed to create tons of fake online profiles to post reviews about the product / service.

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of fake reviews – fake positive reviews and fake negative reviews. Fake positive reviews are fake reviews which paint a positive picture of the product / service being reviewed. Within the category of fake positive reviews, the most common types of reviews are:

  • Fabricated reviews: These are reviews posted by individuals who have never purchased or used the product / service before, and may even be reviews posted by the business owners themselves in order to boost the ratings of their product / service.
  • Paid reviews: While these reviews may be posted by individuals who have used the product / service, the individuals may have been paid or otherwise incentivised (e.g. given free products to sample and keep, being invited to a lavish launch event for the product) to write a favourable review.
  • “Review stuffing”: This refers to the practice of fabricating multiple fake positive reviews in order to compensate for negative ones, by pushing the negative reviews down the list of reviews available, or simply to discredit the negative reviews.
  • Biased reviews: These reviews may come from individuals with a personal connection to the business or the business owners (e.g. employees, family members or friends), and who would naturally leave a favourable review.

On the other hand, fake negative reviews are fake reviews which paint the product / service in a negative light. These may be potentially and/or intentionally defamatory in nature (i.e. damaging to the reputation of the business).

If you are a business owner, positive reviews of your product / service may be essential to attracting potential customers to patronise your business. Hence, it may be tempting to either create or encourage the creation of fake reviews for your business, especially fake positive reviews. However, while this may work in the short-term, if it is subsequently exposed that you have faked or encouraged the faking of positive reviews, this may result in not just a loss of business, but also a loss of reputation and trust in your business. Apart from this, there might also be potential legal or compliance-related penalties that you could face, as discussed further below.

Are Fake Reviews Illegal Under Singapore Law?

Fake reviews are typically published on popular and wide-reaching platforms to achieve their purpose of either boosting or hurting the subject’s business. Such platforms typically have their own internal policies for reviews, and fake reviews can be in breach of such policies.

For example, Google has a Review Policy which requires reviews to be based on one’s personal experiences, be relevant to the business, and be respectful. Reviews that contain spam, contain fake content, or personal information will be removed. According to Google’s Review Policy, businesses are also not allowed to offer incentives in exchange for reviews. If such businesses are found out, it may result in their profiles / accounts on Google being removed.

Apart from potentially being in breach of the platform’s policies, fake reviews may also be illegal under Singapore law.

Fake positive reviews that are misleading or deceptive can potentially fall foul of guidelines that regulate advertising of products / services to consumers in Singapore. The Singapore Code of Advertising Practice (SCAP) is a set of guidelines which seeks to foster a high standard of ethics in advertising. The Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS) administers the SCAP. The SCAP is relevant because fake positive reviews can fall within the definition of advertisements under the SCAP, which is not restricted to any particular form or media, and which includes “digital communications in every format, design and context including the world-wide web (Internet)”.

Under the SCAP, advertisements are misleading if they are inaccurate, ambiguous, exaggerated, or omit important details. For example, a review about a health supplement would be misleading if it claims that consuming the health supplement can prevent or improve the condition of various diseases, when such benefits are in fact scientifically unproven.  Similarly, a review for a cleaning company’s services would be misleading if the review states that upon paying a small upfront fee, the customer will enjoy a year’s worth of free cleaning services, while omitting to mention the ‘fine print’ conditions, such as that the customer has to bear the costs of transportation, cleaning materials, rental of cleaning equipment etc.

If found to have published a misleading advertisement, the ASAS can take any of the following actions:

  • Ask the business to amend or withdraw any advertisements that are in breach of the SCAP.
  • Request its members to sanction the business which is in breach of the SCAP, including withdrawing facilities, rights or services from the business.
  • Withhold advertising space or time from the business.
  • Adverse publicity, i.e. publishing details of the outcome of investigations, naming the business which is in breach of the SCAP.

Additionally, businesses that put out misleading advertisements (including fake positive reviews) may also be caught under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act (CPFTA), which prohibits unfair practices, including the making of false or misleading claims. The Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS) administers the CPFTA, and has certain investigative and enforcement powers. Specifically, the CCCS can take action against errant retailers that engage in unfair practices, such as:

  • Filing applications with the courts against businesses engaging or likely to engage in unfair practices, for a declaration that the practice is an unfair practice, or for an injunction restraining the business from engaging in the unfair practice.
  • If the business refuses to or does not comply with the injunction orders by the courts, commence an application against the business for contempt of court, which is a criminal offence that may result in a fine and/or imprisonment.

As for fake negative reviews, they may potentially violate laws against defamation in Singapore, which may result in criminal or civil liability:

  • Defamation is a criminal offence under section 499 of the Penal Code. This means that the police can take action and arrest the perpetrator for defamation if there is sufficient evidence. If convicted, the perpetrator may be punished with an imprisonment term of up to 2 years, or with fine, or with both.
  • Defamation is also a tort (i.e. a wrongful act) that can give rise to civil action under the Defamation Act. Under the tort of defamation, written words (such as reviews posted online) can constitute libel, which gives the victim (i.e. the business/business owner in the case of fake negative reviews) a right to commence a civil lawsuit against the wrongdoer and pursue either compensation or an injunction.

The poster of a fake negative review may be liable for defamation, if the following 3 elements can be shown:

  1. First, the statement in question is defamatory. A defamatory statement is one that damages the reputation of someone (e.g. an individual or a business). For example, a fake review that makes false allegations about a food business’ poor hygiene standards (e.g. seeing rats running around the premises, or chefs handling food without gloves etc.) would be defamatory. Members of the public who come across the review would believe that the eatery has poor food safety and hygiene standards, and this would damage the food business’ reputation. Another example would be a review of a luxury goods reseller stating that all the products being sold are fake. This would also be defamatory, as it harms the business’ reputation by making a false allegation about the authenticity of its products.
  2. Second, the statement in question must refer to the victim, i.e. the review must refer specifically to or identify the business by name, a photograph of the business premises or website, or some other means by which the business can be clearly identified.
  3. Lastly, the statement in question must be published, or communicated to a third party. Specific to online reviews, there must be evidence to show that the review has actually been read by third parties. Such evidence could be obtained from the platforms themselves.

Can I (As a Business Owner) Take Legal Action Against a Fake Negative Review?

If you are a business owner and you come across fake negative reviews about your business online, you have the option of filing a civil claim for libel (i.e., defamatory statements published in print, or on social media) if the 3 elements discussed above are satisfied. Apart from just claiming monetary damages against the poster of the fake negative review for the damage to your reputation, you can also consider seeking the following reliefs from the court:

  • A prohibitory injunction, which is an injunction restraining the poster of the fake negative review from publishing any defamatory statements in the future.
  • A mandatory injunction, which is an injunction requiring the review poster to retract the review.

The likelihood of success of your civil claim largely depends not only on whether you are able to convincingly establish the 3 elements for defamation / libel, but also whether there is any merit to the potential defences that can be raised by the review poster. The two main defences against a defamation claim are:

  1. The defence of justification: The review poster must prove that the review was in fact true, and hence was not defamatory. Referring to the above examples, if the review posters are able to prove (e.g. through photographic evidence, videos etc.) that the reviews are true, i.e. that there really were rats crawling around the premises and that the chefs were not handling food in a hygienic manner, or that the luxury goods reseller is in fact selling fake products, then the review poster would not be held liable for defamation.
  2. The defence of fair comment: The review poster must prove that the review is just an expression of his/her opinion, based on true facts, is the opinion of a relatively unbiased person, and is related to a matter of public interest. However, this defence can be defeated if the business owner is able to show that the review poster was motivated by malice, or the review poster had an intention to harm the business.

If you have assessed the strength of your claim, and are not confident that it will definitely succeed, there are still other legal measures that you can take against the posters of fake negative reviews, including:

  • Applying to the court for a stop publication order under section 15A of the Protection from Harassment Act, which can have the outcome of preventing the review from being published again in the future. You can also consider applying to the court for a correction order under section 15B of the Protection from Harassment Act, requiring the review poster to publish a correction notice, admitting that the statements in the review are false.
  • Writing to the platform hosting the review to ask that the review be taken down for being in violation of the platform’s policies. For this, you would probably have to substantiate your belief that the review is in violation of the platform’s policies, e.g. by showing that the review is a spam review that is left on multiple business profiles etc.

If I am a Consumer, What Can I Do If I Come Across a Fake Review (Whether Negative or Positive)?

If you are a consumer, fake reviews may not affect you as much as they might a business owner, as you are not the subject of the review. However, these reviews are likely to play a part in your decision-making when it comes to purchasing a product / service. Such purchases can range from small-value purchases like finding a place to grab lunch, to larger-value purchases like getting a car or booking a venue to host an event. Thus, it is still important for you to be able to discern fake reviews from genuine reviews, and the following may be useful to help you do so:

  • Before even getting to the substance and content of the review, it may be good to pay attention to the reviewer’s profile, which would include information like the reviewer’s name, picture, other reviews posted etc. Posters of fake reviews are more likely to want to hide behind the anonymity of made-up usernames, generic pictures etc. Hence, if you do see such signs, it may cause you to be more cautious about the review. Another tell-tale sign could be the other reviews posted by the reviewer. If there are no other reviews, it could be a sign that the reviewer had created an account just to write one malicious review, and it is more likely to be fake. On the other hand, if the reviewer has posted multiple reviews, but all the reviews are exact duplicates of each other, then it is also likely that they are not genuine.
  • As for the content of the review itself, you should look out for reviews that exist on two ends of the spectrum. On one end, reviews that are very short, vague and hastily written with little to no concrete details about the product / service are likely to be fake. For example, reviews like “Great product” or “Love it” are likely to just be reviews generated en-masse to boost the reputation of a product / service. On the other hand, if a review is too over-exaggerated in praising or hating on a product / service, this would also be a red flag to look out for, as there may be more than meets the eye in terms of the intentions behind posting the review.
  • If the review is neither overly short nor overly long, your last line of defence is your gut instinct. Importantly, the review should read like it came from an actual person, as opposed to something that was generated using artificial intelligence (AI) tools, or something that was written hastily and without much attention.

If you do spot a fake review online, you can reach out to either the business itself or the platform with your concerns. In the case of a fake negative review, it may be better to reach out to the business directly, as they would be the ones who are negatively affected by the review. Reaching out to the business directly would bring the fake negative review to their attention immediately, and they can then better assess what steps they would like to take (e.g. responding to the review, putting out clarifications, reporting the review to the platform etc.).

However, in the case of a fake positive review, as there is a chance that the business itself could be behind the reviews, it may be more appropriate to contact the platform directly, so that the platform can follow up on the matter.

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In conclusion, fake reviews can not only fall foul of the platform’s policies, but may also be illegal under Singapore law, prompting both civil and criminal action to be taken against the poster of the fake review.

If you are a business owner and you wish to get further advice on dealing with fake reviews of your business, you can seek further guidance from either a civil lawyer or a criminal lawyer.

The civil lawyer will be able to advise you on any possible civil claims that you can make against the review poster, and represent you in the civil proceedings. On the other hand, a criminal lawyer will be better placed to advise you on the potential criminal liability arising out of the posting of a fake review, regardless of whether you are the victim of the fake review, or if you have been caught posting fake reviews.