Goodreads Ransom Scam And The Platform's Astonishing Indifference

January 13th, 2021

A number of authors are being attacked by scammers who first post multiple fake 1-star reviews and ratings on Goodreads and then demand ransom to take them down.

If you are not a book geek, you might not be familiar with Goodreads. They are 'the largest site for readers and book recommendations' as they claim on Twitter. They are, essentially, a social network built around books. People track their reading, write reviews, discuss books, etc.

A lot of folks have criticized Goodreads because the website is obsolete and unituitive and hasn't been improved in years. It was also bought by Amazon several years ago, which is viewed by many as a conflict of interest. All of it is true, but despite that, it still has millions of users who create all the value the website provides. It has a vibrant community of book geeks, a wealth of reviews that have been gathered for over 10 years (!) and book lists for every taste and whim. I've found some amazing books there just asking people for recommendations, connected with other authors and had a lot of fun discussing books. Until...

I stumbled upon a thread that was initially about something else, but quickly turned into several authors complaining about falling victim to the same scam. Dozens of 1-star ratings and reviews appeared under their books at the same time. They were all one-liners from private accounts without photos and said things like 'Full Misogyny' (always capitalized and this exact wording :D), racism, sexism, religious bigotry, etc. A few days later, someone contacted the authors saying they noticed they had a lot of bad reviews and offered to fix that for a fee and provide good ratings.

Screenshot from Goodreads: "Well, folks, my book is sunk. I now have many, many more one star ratings, none of which have been taken down. They say the same things over and over. That my book is racist, full of misogyny and outdated. Once again, I haven't even sold enough books for all of these to be actual readers. Do they not know that we keep up with the number of volumes we have sold and that their ploy is transparent? Anyway, I just can't fight this battle right now so I am going to take it down. Two years of hard work down the drain. I probably won't see you again. With sorrow, Julie."

Screenshot from Goodreads. Julie: "Guess what. Just now when I checked my author profile, I found an unsolicited offer from a company who "noticed I had a lot of bad ratings" and would "fix" them for me for a fee and provide good ratings. So, is Goodreads allowing shakedowns now?" MK: "I got the same offer. I forwarded it Goodreads."

Screenshot from Goodreads. Gordon:"I've had a similar offer wanting $200 to sort it out. Passed content to Goodreads and waiting for response."

No need to be a detective to see a criminal pattern here.

It got even more interesting when within the next day everyone on the thread was attacked by the same scammers, including me. It was the first time for some of us, while others just got hit again.

Goodreads screenshot. Alina: "Now they've hit me as well :D I can't see the new reviews and ratings yet, but there there are lots of new ones, and my book rating has fallen from 4,5* to less than 2."

Goodreads screenshot. Alina: "The reviews are hilarious, two of them are even absolutely the same, and one says 'Full Misogyny" just like yours, no creativity at all :D" Julie: "I just got hit again, under different names. So, when the scammers see Goodreads taking down one set of bad reviews, they set up a new account and start again. At this rate, exactly what is the point of even trying to list your book on Goodreads????"

Goodreads screenshot. Jane: "I’ve been hit too. 10 1* ratings today, no reviews from them. How do you actually contact Goodreads about this issue?"

Goodreads screenshot. MK: "The 30 of the 1 star reviews I had prior to today are gone but more appeared today.  Both books. So it is a never ending process. I will send them another message and screen shot."

Goodreads screenshot. Rita: "Overnight all seven of my books have received a dearth of 1 star reviews!"

Some of these screenshots are taken from a new thread dealing with this specific scam.

The initial batch of fake reviews and ratings that I got came from the accounts some of which had over 40 one-star ratings to them, which means they were attacking at least 40 books at a time. In fact, there were more because not all of the accounts attacking the authors I was in contact with were the same.

So, all of us contacted Goodreads support, and the next day fake reviews and accounts were gone. But you'll never guess! More appeared on 11 January. New accounts, same reviews.

Goodreads screenshot. Julie: "I've been hit again. So, obviously, Goodreads is doing nothing to prevent this continuing issue. I will contact them as often as necessary until they do. The more times these scammers hit, the more legal evidence they are providing. They must be incredibly stupid." Alina: "I've been hit again as well."

Goodreads screenshot. MK: "I think I might start sending one support message for each one of the spam ratings. They are back. Round and round we go."

Goodreads screenshot. Rita: "Yes, mine from 10th disappeared but were all re-done on 11th. I'm going through and flagging them." Gordon: "Here's a good one! They have also hit all of my 9 releases, but they also hit #10 that is not even released yet! (I have entered it in my books for future release). The book has almost 15 ratings in one day, and it doesn't even exist! I will also highlight this to Goodreads, though they haven't yet responded to my initial complaint! Time for a Goodreads Exit, or Gexit in UK terms!"

Goodreads screenshot. Jane: "The original 8 ratings were removed by Goodreads but I have now been hit again (yesterday). This time it is the churned out, sexism, racism, misogyny reviews. Also ones calling it a disaster and bad grammar. Laughable - the main character is a strong female who is not white and I had it professionally edited!! Must be a bot that just regurgitates these things. I guess I contact Goodreads again."

This time, it took Goodreads 2 days to get rid of the spam. For some reason, they left reviews from one of the fake accounts under some of the books, including mine.

It was a bit different this time. Most of the fake accounts' reviews were still one-star, but some of them also had five-star reviews, which made me think: has somebody already paid them to 'fix' the bad reviews they posted in the first place? Because remember, they also promised to provide good ones. Here is one of the accounts:

Screenshot of one of the fake profiles. No image. Visible text: Kevin R.'s profile. Kevin's profile data is set to private.  You can view profiles for: direct friends (if you are signed in); users who have made their profile public. 32 ratings, 6 reviews. Avg rating 2.12. 5 stars - 28% (9), 1 star - 71% (23)

I guess you can see what's going on here. It's a never-ending battle, and it can go on forever. Does it make sense for the authors to constantly monitor their books and report scammers just to get hit again the next day? How many authors are attacked like this? How many of them actually pay ransom?

Also, as a reader, I used to think that if a book had an average rating of about 2 stars or lower and had over 10 reviews, it meant it was garbage and not worth even looking at. Now I know it can also mean that the author is under attack by criminals. So, if I want to know the truth, I need to look through all the ratings and reviews and see whether a bunch of them were all posted on the same day from private accounts, saying similar things. Want an example? Here are some of the reviews that I got.

Goodreads screenshot. Some of the 1-star reviews I got. Kevin R.: "I wasted my two precious days on this disaster." Sean P.: "Couldn't finish it. DNF." Jimmy J.: "So not recommended. I wasted my time on this." Mararita W.: "The less said, the better. Offensive book" Willie J.: "Full Misogyny" Billy B.: "Serious anti-Christian overtones. Avoid" April M.: "Save your money and thank me later."

If anyone has ever been attacked by these scammers, they'll recognize at least some of the phrases because the same ones are being reused over and over. Needless to say, none of this has anything to do with the actual contents of the book.

I'd think this really undermines Goodreads credibility, and they would take it seriously. Yes, it affects authors, and that's not who the website is primarily for (though allowing even a small portion of your users to get shaken down by criminals is, let's be fair, pretty shitty), but it also means that readers cannot trust the ratings, therefore losing a lot of the value they get from Goodreads. So, what has been their response? They are probably taking action to prevent this from happening, right? Because, you know, legitimate users don't create an account and immediately start posting multiple one-star reviews, so there should be a way to automatically flag this behavior and prevent those form being posted. What are they doing? Drumroll.

Nothing.

When I wrote to support both times, I let them know that a lot of authors were hit in the same way multiple times and ransom was involved. I know that whoever works in support does not control Goodreads policy, so I asked them to pass it on to their management to make sure preventative action would be taken. They deleted the reviews without bothering to respond. I asked other authors, and their experience has been the same. One of the authors who was attacked most times said that he received an answer a few times saying that the spam has been deleted, but none of his questions were answered.

I also tagged Goodreads on Twitter. The first time, this was their response.

Twitter conversation with Goodreads. Alina Leonova: "@goodreads  Yesterday I had a public conversation with a few authors who were hit by a number of 1-star reviews, followed by an offer to "fix" those for money. It's basically ransom. Today, they've hit me. Are you going to implement any rating fraud protection?" Goodreads: "Hello! Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Please Contact Us directly, and we'll take a closer look into this issue: link. We're here to help! ^DB"

Continuation of Twitter conversation with Goodreads. Alina Leonova: "I've contacted support directly, but I also wanted to bring attention to it publicly because it's not just a thing that happened to me, it's a pattern, and some action should be taken to prevent this from happening to anyone. Solving it on a case-by-case basis is not enough." Goodreads: "We understand your concerns. For security reasons, we're unable to access your account details on social media. Please Contact Us using the link above to speak with someone who can look closer into the issue with you. We're here to help! ^DB"

Later, when I was hit by the second wave of fake reviews, I tagged them again but was ignored. Another author wrote to them on Facebook and got no response at all. Again, I realize that whoever runs Goodreads social media is not in charge of their policy, but I would expect them to at least acknowledge the problem and assure they'd look into it and pass it on to the people who could deal with it. Honestly, it would seem reasonable if they sought contact with the authors under attack to learn more about the scam and figure out ways to prevent that from ever happening.

As a Goodreads user, I only have a few ways to contact them: either through support or social media. I know that "goodreads" is a construct, not a single entity I can talk to and call out on its bullshit, but it's represented by the people I can communicate with. So far, all of them ignored me as well as others and failed to acknowledge the issue.

This astonishing indifference, might mean two things that I can think of.

  1. Either Goodreads employees just don't care about the company and their jobs because they are mistreated or not paid enough or both and are on the way out
  2. or they care but can't do anything because no one listens to them when they raise issues or they don't have enough resources / staff to make any difference.

Also, maybe all of the above is true. If that's the case, I'm sorry for Goodreads employees and sending my sympathy to any of you who is reading this. Maybe you are doing your best to keep this platform afloat.

In any case, taking into account that Amazon owns Goodreads, there is no excuse for any of that. How can you allow criminals to thrive on the platform, undermining its credibility and extorting money from the users? How can you mistreat employees or not provide them with enough resources to do their job? It's not like you don't have money. And if you are so indifferent to this project, why did you buy it? This is shameful at best.

I guess I'll just leave it at that in hopes it will get some traction and maybe become another push leading to the long needed change on Goodreads. So, if you think that something should be done, share this post, it's the only way to make people responsible for it pay any attention.

UPDATE: I received a response from Goodreads on 22 January, saying they were working with their 'engineering teams to investigate possible solutions to prevent this from happening in the future.'

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