The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken its first enforcement action against a case involving “review hijacking,” where a marketer steals consumer reviews of another product to boost the sales of its own. The FTC has ordered The Bountiful Company, the maker of Nature’s Bounty vitamins and other brands, to pay $600,000 for deceiving customers on Amazon where it used a feature to merge the reviews of different products to make some appear to have better ratings and reviews than they otherwise would have had if marketed under their own listings.

The case exposes how sellers have been exploiting an Amazon feature that allows sellers to request the creation of “variation” relationships between different products and SKUs. The feature is meant to help marketers and consumers alike as it creates a single detail page on Amazon.com that shows similar products that are different only in narrow, specific ways. For example, a t-shirt may have a dozen SKUs associated with one another because the shirt comes in a wide variety of colors.

However, The Bountiful Company exploited Amazon’s feature to merge its newer products with older, well-established products which had different formulations. In one example, the retailer asked Amazon to merge newer supplements with three other products, all of which had different formulations from the newer ones and each other. In an internal email from August 2020, the company noted that the approximately 1,000 ratings and 4.5-star average ratings the newer products had were because of this variation relationship.

The FTC cited and screenshotted over a dozen examples from 2020 and 2021 in its original complaint against the vitamin and supplement maker, which in 2021 sold its core brands — including Nature’s Bounty and Sundown — to Nestlé.

As a result of these product merges, consumers who happened across any of the newer products would believe them to be better received than they were in reality, as they were benefitting from the merged ratings and reviews of other, differentiated items.

“Boosting your products by hijacking another product’s ratings or reviews is a relatively new tactic, but is still plain old false advertising,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The Bountiful Company has been ordered to pay the Commission $600,000 as monetary relief for consumers. It’s also prohibited from making similar types of misrepresentations and barred from using “deceptive review tactics that distort what consumers think about its products or services.”

Amazon itself has been fighting the fake review industry in a number of ways, including through lawsuits and permanently banning brands for review fraud. But with The Bountiful Company, Amazon actually provided the feature that allowed the retailer to commit fraud — and it seemingly didn’t police its use.

Given that Amazon has now entered the healthcare market with its own online pharmacy and its new telehealth service, its inattention to health-related fraud around hijacked vitamin and supplement reviews is even more concerning. Amazon has stated that it has proactive measures in place to prevent listing abuse and reviews abuse, but the fact remains that fraudulent activity is still happening on the platform.