Online reviews of products and businesses should be taken with at least a few grains of salt, since it's usually not clear if real customers have actually posted their honest assessments. Now, a new report shows how one company compensated customers for good reviews.

As described in a story published Thursday in The New York Times, a company named VIP Deals received rave reviews online about its Vipertek black leather case for the Kindle Fire tablet on Amazon. Out of 335 reviews, 310 gave the case five stars.

'Totally Off-Base'

Following reports that VIP Deals was offering the case for free in exchange for writing a product review, the company issued a denial. The Times quotes a representative as saying via e-mail that such charges were "totally off-base."

But three customers revealed a VIP Web notice that sold the $59.99 case for $10 plus shipping. When the product arrived, an included letter offered to "refund your order so you will have received the product for free," in exchange for writing a product review for the Amazon community.

The letter did not explicitly require a five-star recommendation in order to get compensation, but it strongly hinted it wanted such a review. "We strive," the letter said, "to earn 100 percent 'FIVE-STAR' scores from you!" The customer Relevant Products/Services received the product for free, regardless of what the review actually said.

VIP Deals does not have a Web site, and its street address is a mailbox drop. Possibly as a result of the adverse publicity, the product is no longer being offered on Amazon. The Vipertek Stun Gun, also made by VIP Deals, has similarly been taken down -- and which similarly had a plethora of five-star reviews.

Lucas Fayne

Federal Trade Commission rules require disclosure if there is a connection between an endorser and a seller. The FTC's associate director for advertising practices, Mary Engle, told the Times that "advertising disguised as editorial is an old problem, but it's now presenting itself in different ways." Amazon said its guidelines prohibit customers from receiving payment for their reviews.

The issue of fake online reviews is increasingly gaining attention. For instance, there's the well-known fake online reviewer Lucas Fayne. Fayne has posted many favorable reviews about building contractors on a variety of sites.

It turns out that Lucas Fayne is the placeholder name in a template for small-business Relevant Products/Services owners who set up Web sites using Intuit software Relevant Products/Services. A spokesperson for Intuit has told news media that the name is only given as an example in the template, and is supposed to be overwritten by a user's name accompanying an authentic review.

Consumer Reports, which takes no paid advertising, says on its Web site that there are giveaways that could indicate fake reviews.

The publication said these include multiple exclamation points and overly enthusiastic language in a posting, too many references such as "my wife" or "my family," and very detailed references to product specifications.