Business / Technology

Online 'brushing' hard to combat

By PAUL WELITZKIN (China Daily) Updated: 2015-04-07 10:21

As Chinese authorities move to curb the practice of "brushing"-falsely boosting merchant credibility ratings on e-commerce platforms-a report from the United States illustrates just what a hard task they could be facing.

The Ministry of Commerce said last week that it wants operators of retail platforms like Alibaba's Taobao to ban vendors who falsify ratings. Operators could face fines of up to 500,000 yuan ($80,600) for failing to provide relevant information about such practices, according to a draft law.

But according to the new report, published by the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and highlighted in The Wall Street Journal, brushing is already a growing "underground industry that employs sophisticated methods to cater to online sellers who want to quickly boost their online reputations".

Haitao Xu, a native of Henan province studying for a doctorate at William and Mary, was one of the authors of the report, which monitored 11,000 sellers on Taobao.

He said the research shows that sellers able to fake transactions were quickly able to lift their online rankings.

Brushing works like this, he said: Vendors pay brushers the cost of the products they are ordering, plus a fee. The brushers then place an order and make a payment using that money. The vendors then ship boxes that are empty or full of worthless merchandise while the brushers write very positive reviews.

Using the actual Taobao ID of more than 4,000 sellers, Xu and his colleagues tracked how their store ratings improved. They discovered that Taobao sellers who faked transactions could basically boost their store rankings 10 times faster than others.

"The major components of a seller's reputation include transaction volume and positive reviews," said Xu, and brushing now represents an "emerging threat" to the e-commerce reputation system.

Xu's research team found that of the 4,109 sellers on Taobao identified as faking transactions, just 89 or 2.2 percent were detected by Taobao and eventually penalized.

The William and Mary research team offered suggestions to mitigate the problem, including hosting service providers actively removing sites found to be brushing, and operators like Alibaba being encouraged to improve their detection of abusers.

The Wall Street Journal said Alibaba declined to comment on the study but said it remained "dedicated to the fight against activities like brushing".

Alibaba insists it excludes fake transactions from its reporting of merchandise volume, which amounted to 1.68 trillion yuan on its two main shopping platforms, Taobao and Tmall, in the year ended March 2014.

Last year, China's online retail sales grew 41 percent ringing up transactions of 2.6 trillion yuan, according to Ministry of Industry and Information Technology data.

Last year shares in Alibaba fell after reports of rising instances of fake goods being sold began to surface.

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