My secret life as a fake reviewer of women’s lingerie

It was a Sunday afternoon, usually earmarked for quiet lunches with family, when an email arrived from the obscure address rockpaperscissors12@xyz.biz. The sender had taken care to stay anonymous through the generic email address, and even the message contained no giveaway – not even a sign off at the end. But I knew who it was, and receiving an email from them meant something was not right.

“500 reviews done by you have been cancelled because of similar wording,” the email said. “Please reframe them by going through the products once more and using your imagination to describe them in a different manner. Don’t use adjectives to praise the product but just tell us how you felt after using them – even if you haven’t. Or just use a thesaurus.”

Great! Forty-eight hours of my work had just been scrapped, I thought, but responded with a polite apology, seeking time to fix the reviews.

Labour is cheap

There is nothing easy about writing fake reviews for an e-commerce website. Especially not one that aims to compete with the best in the industry. It is particularly hard if you are a man, and dress like one, to imagine how it feels wearing a red stole with polka dots, or a chocolate-coloured lipstick.

For three months one summer, that was my job: to write 3,000 fake reviews for products under the women’s category, and add another 1,000 comments on the product pages of the website. The brief was simple: the reviews should look as real as possible, while the comments should look as though you were “dying to buy this product”.

The words used to describe the product could not be repeated in the reviews or comments. There were strict deadlines for completing each “bucket” of products – a category within a category – and those who tried to rush by rephrasing the same sentences were penalised with 100 extra reviews.

Each fake reviewer was commissioned to write 3,000 reviews and 1,000 comments in three months. However, there was no way to know your progress, since the company would reveal the final numbers at the end of the month. This meant that one wrote more reviews than actually required, in anticipation of the fact that some might be rejected for not being “up to the mark” (while they were used for free, elsewhere on the website).

“Please keep an idea of how many comments [and reviews] you are making, to avoid any kind of confusion. Back-end records exist but they are evaluated only at the end… so it is up to you to stay up-to-date with the status of your work,” an email said, when I queried about the progress of my work.

The categories were distributed without any consideration of a person’s experience, preference or, in my case, gender. At one point, I was writing reviews and comments on women’s bags, jewellery, sandals and even underwear.

“This fabric is high-quality and value for money. It’s almost as good as wearing nothing,” was one example shared with us, which we were supposed to use as a creative template for our own lingerie reviews.

How difficult can it be to write three sentences about 50 products a day? I had wondered before I applied, but much to my astonishment, it wasn’t easy money at all.

Raise your standards

“Quality is key,” another email announced in bold red capital letters. But how much imagination and dedication can you muster when you are paid just Rs 5 per fake review? The payment was limited to the reviews that were accepted. If the moderator did not like a review, you did not get paid for it.

Overall, only half of the total reviews I wrote for the website were accepted, but I frequently found the ones rejected, plastered on other products, outside the allotted category.

For instance, I wrote this about a black handbag for women: “The price of this product is very misleading since the quality is far more superior than I imagined. It handles cash and cards well and I am happy with the purchase.”

This review was rejected for being “too vague” and “superficial”. A few days later, however, I saw it on the page of a men’s wallet. Essentially, no labour was wasted for the company, it could always be used to describe some other product, and they wouldn’t even have to pay for it.

The supervisor overseeing this project was not from the company, but a college senior working as a freelancer. She put together a team of 20, including me. We were given individual targets and timelines to populate reviews and comments on almost all the products on the site.

We worked at least 15 hours a day, were paid mainly through shopping vouchers we could spend on the same website, and were made to sign a non-disclosure agreement to ensure that we never put the jobs on our resumés.

At the end of all this, we were yelled at by our supervisor for not doing “quality work”, and told to be grateful to the company, which continued to employ us.

“All of you need to work better. These reviews are way below our quality standards, and people are working full time to fix these. The company won’t hold your payments, but you should have enough conscience to at least deliver what you promised,” read one censorious email.

No frauds here, move along

It was the horror of having nothing to do during a three-month-long summer vacation that had done me in. A college senior had forwarded a link to this innocuous-sounding “marketing internship”, and I had applied without an inkling of what was coming. There was more than enough work to keep me occupied through the day, and most nights – but for anyone creatively inclined, it was a soul-crushing exercise with no end in sight.

Fake reviews form an important part of a bustling e-commerce industry. Everywhere in the world, websites and companies offer fake reviews as a service for their clients. E-commerce websites or even those selling specific products avail of the service in order to appear popular among users.

The task of churning out reviews by thousands isn’t too expensive in India. An industry insider told me that fake reviews can be obtained for as little as Rs 5 to Rs 10 per review, with a contract of delivering at least 1,000 “acceptable” ones.

Every day, after I had finished my quota of reviews, I would wait for an acknowledgement from the company’s content team to make sure that they had logged my work hours and reviews in the system. I did not want to work for free. I was promised Rs 5,000 in cash and Rs 10,000 in vouchers, but a month into the internship, I just wanted to quit. That did not happen.

Once, due to a slip up, a content manager revealed their name on an email thread. I looked for their number online, so I could speak to a human being about about my unhappiness with the category I had been allotted. When they picked up the call, I asked if I could quit immediately. They cut me short, saying all communication should be through the supervisor of the project, and that I should “never ever” call any company employee again.

The manager never picked up calls or sent me an email again.

“Can I at least visit the office once to discuss this?” I asked the supervisor, and was told that she was not even allowed past the main gate.

And so, I carried on writing reviews. I lost sleep trying to learn new adjectives that could describe products, trawled Amazon and eBay late into the night, trying to figure how real people would actually review something they used, wondering if I should sub-contract my job out to some other poor soul.

In August, the assignment was finally over. As I waited for a call to collect my cheque and the prized certificate, the college supervisor disappeared. People began to mail her en masse, frantically seeking payment, but she responded only once, saying that the people running the company were not “frauds”, and that we would be informed once our payments were ready.

When the day finally arrived, we were asked to come to the nearest Metro station, go behind a McDonald’s restaurant located two lanes away from the company office. I found it odd, but followed her directions. In that dark alley, a security guard appeared and quickly handed me an envelope with a cheque of Rs 4,000 with some shopping vouchers. He indicated that I should leave.

Two months later, I ran into the college supervisor on a bus and asked her what her plans were, now that she had graduated.

“I have been employed by the e-commerce company after they saw my performance on the fake review project,” she said. “Let me know if you would like to write more for men’s categories this time.”

Note 7 users can now exchange their Samsung smartphones in Pakistan

Anyone possessing the notorious Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone in Pakistan can now get it exchanged or obtain a refund inside the country from Samsung.

Samsung has been struggling to contain a snowballing safety crisis as it recalls Note 7 smartphones with exploding batteries that have been catching fire.

Although Samsung did not launch the Note 7 in Pakistan, it has decided to cater to customers who acquired the smartphones from abroad or from local vendors.

In addition to its request to customers to back up their data and switch off their Note 7 smartphones, Samsung has given Pakistani customers the following options to get rid of the smartphone:

Get a full refund

Customers possessing a proof purchase for their Galaxy Note 7 will be refunded the full amount mentioned on the receipt.

In case a customer has no proof of purchase, they will be refunded a fixed amount of $817.

Exchange with S7 edge

Note 7 owners can also opt to exchange their smartphone, with Samsung offering its flagship Galaxy S7 edge and a refund of Rs10,000 in return.

The company has asked customers who pre-booked the phone to “contact the relevant retailers to get a refund”.

PR disaster

The South Korean conglomerate called a halt to worldwide sales and exchanges of the troubled handset, as the federal US consumer regulator issued an alarming warning of the possible dangers the device posed to its owners, their families and homes.

The announcement came a little over a month after the world’s largest smartphone maker announced a recall of 2.5 million Note 7s in 10 markets following complaints that its lithium-ion battery exploded while charging.

The unprecedented move has turned into a PR disaster for the company, which prides itself on innovation and quality, and the situation only worsened when reports emerged a week ago of replacement phones also catching fire.

PSO first-quarter profit rises 35pc

KARACHI: Pakistan State Oil Company Limited (PSO) on Monday announced first quarter (Q1) results for the financial year 2016-17, posting a profit-after-tax (PAT) at Rs4.3 billion and earnings per share (eps) at Rs16.1.

The earnings represented a growth of 35 per cent over the Rs3.2bn (eps Rs11.97) earned in the same period last year. Analysts believed that the results were in line with market expectations.

PSO said in a statement: “The increase in PAT was due to a growth of 17pc in liquid fuel sales (White oil and Black oil) over the same period last year. There was an increase of 2.9pc in White oil sales and 31pc in Furnace oil sales. Gaseous fuels sales showed improvement with increase in sales volume of LPG by 134pc and LNG by 107pc. Analyst Umair Naseer at Topline Securities noted that the net sales were up 4pcYoY to Rs194bn in 1QFY17 led by strong volumetric growth in its oil sales. “The strong growth in sales volume negated any negative impact arising due to lower oil prices and supported sales of the company during 1QFY17. Oil prices were down 14pcYoY in the quarter under discussion”, said the analyst.

PSO reported that during the period under review, the company maintained its market leadership position in the industry with an overall market share of 56.5pc as opposed to 56.9pc during the same period last year. The market share of Black Oil products stood at 75.2pc and market share of White Oil products was 42.7pc.

According to a PSO release, the meeting of the Board held on Monday, ‘highlighted the financial challenge faced by the company due to outstanding receivables of Rs 249bn (June 30, 2016: Rs 233 billion) from the power sector, PIA and SNGPL against supplies of furnace oil, aviation fuels and LNG.

Umpiring blunders take the Test into final day

THIS has so far been a nightmarish Test match for the field umpires — Michael Gough and Richard Illingworth — both from England, who between them have eight of their decision reversed by TV umpire Paul Reiffel.

Like the players, the umpires too also appear to have good and bad days but on form this has been quite a terrible performance of decision-making by the two. Gough has so far blundered five times and Illingworth on four occasions.

Thanks to the Decision Review System (DRS) that this second Test has managed to enter the final day. If not for that, the way decisions were being made, the ongoing Test would have ended perhaps on the third evening.

Players of either side no doubt had their nerves tested but did benefit from the review system.

Pakistan, unlike their second innings disaster in the first Test at Dubai, showed a lot more application to be able to consolidate their lead with Asad Shafiq contributing yet another half century (58 not out) alongside Younis Khan to allow Misbah-ul-Haq a declaration at lunch as Pakistan led by 455.

It was not really an ideal situation for the West Indies team to aim at the target. Their survival much depended on their ability to defend and last the last five sessions of the match rather than going on the attack to go for it.

Not many teams in history have succeeded in such situations. Only West Indies in 2003 did that against Australia in Antigua chasing 418 runs to win. But those were the days when the Caribbeans were a force to be reckoned with.

The only occasion anything near to it I watched was at The Oval in 1979 when India chasing 438 to win against England fell short of only eight runs as the great Sunil Gavaskar scored 221.

Their gradual decline of West Indies over the years and their inter-island politics and rivalry has not left them in a good health recently.

The myth that the West Indian youth of the modern times is lot more interested in American basketball is not really the full truth which many believe is the cause for them plummeting down to a lowly ranked spot.

Only recently I asked Andy Roberts, the great fast bowler from Antigua who was in Karachi briefly, whether there was any truth in what is said about the basketball and baseball thing and interest lost in cricket by the youth of the islands.

‘No truth at all in what is being said’, Robert told me. ‘The fact of the matter is that present day youngsters in the West Indies do not work hard as we did when we ruled the roost under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards.

‘We were dedicated and had lot of pride in what we did to be at the top. Now things have changed and I do not see the boys working hard to reach excellence.’ Roberts told me.

In the present team, Marlon Samuels and Darren Bravo do look the part and to a certain extent Roston Chase. The bowling even lacks that shock effect as we witnessed watching the likes of Roberts, Michael Holding. Joel Garner, Colin Croft and the indomitable Malcolm Marshall.

Going through the motion in a leisurely pace does not really help. The present lot from the Calypso seem resigned to their status in the ranking and with their lack-lustre approach to game remain an unattractive team to follow.

Today the final day could see them going 2-0 down in this three match series. Already 285 runs behind and three session to survive could be a tough ask once Misbah’s bowlers have a quick breakthrough.

Kraigg Brathwaite with 67 already is holding on the fort, but for how long?

US envoy’s visit to Arunachal irks China

BEIJING: China admonished the United States on Monday for sending its ambassador in India to a contested stretch of land on the India-China border, warning that a third party’s meddling would only complicate the dispute between Beijing and New Delhi.

China claims more than 90,000 square kilometers of territory disputed by India in the eastern sector of the Himalayas.

Much of that forms the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China calls South Tibet.

US Ambassador to India Richard Verma posted photos on his Twitter account on Oct 21 of his recent trip to Arunachal Pradesh, thanking Indian officials for their “warm hospitality” and calling the region a “magical place”.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China was “firmly opposed” to the US diplomat’s actions, which he said would “damage the hard-earned peace and tranquillity of the China-India border region”.

“Any responsible third party should respect efforts by China and India to seek peaceful and stable reconciliation, and not the opposite,” Mr Lu told a regular press briefing.

“We urge the United States to stop getting involved in the China-India territorial dispute and do more to benefit this region’s peace and tranquillity,” he said, adding that China and India were handling the matter appropriately through talks.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs described Mr Verma’s visit as “nothing unusual”.

“The US ambassador visited Arunachal Pradesh, a state which is an integral part of the country to which he is accredited,” the ministry’s spokesman Vikas Swarup said in response to the Chinese statement.

No comment was available from the US Embassy in New Delhi.

Disagreement between China and India over parts of their 3,500km border led to a brief war in 1962.