Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba (BABA) is trying to clean house on so-called “brushers,” organized outside networks of fake buyers and reviewers who are paid to inflate a sellers’ rankings.
Alibaba has reportedly sued one such company, Shatui.com, for a sum of 2.16 million yuan ($310,000), after working with authorities to raid the company’s office, Bloomberg reports.
The lawsuit marks a departure from the past; brushers have reportedly driven up the company’s gross merchandise volume for years, but as Alibaba seeks a more credible image it has begun cleaning up its act.
“Alibaba wasn’t as stringent about brushing before its IPO, but it’s really cracked down on the malpractice in the past year,” analyst Ray Zhao of Guotai Junan Securities Co. was quoted by Bloomberg as saying.
Sellers on one of Alibaba’s most popular sites, Taobao, say that brushers are hurting their business; if they refuse to or can’t afford the service, their merchandise can easily fall into the shadows of the site’s billion or so listings, Bloomberg reports.
“It’s practically impossible for a newcomer to start a shop on Taobao these days without resorting to brushing,” said Jian Weiqing, a cosmetics seller on Taobao, told Bloomberg.
Conversely, brushers appear to take the position that they are offering a necessary service, giving merchants a leg up in a saturated market. A video tutorial on the website of a brushing company called Hiwinwin reportedly tells visitors that the “age for giving yourself good reviews and buying your own orders is too simple. You need a professional network to help.”
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In some cases that can come in the form of sprawling network operations. Shatui.com, the company being sued by Alibaba, has reportedly recruited more than 5,000 staffers to pretend to buy products, move around digital currencies and leave positive reviews.
Alibaba is also trying to fight down a reputation for counterfeit merchandise. The company’s founder, Jack Ma, came under fire earlier this year for portraying the company as a global leader in countering fake goods. According to the Wall Street Journal, monitors who track counterfeits for some major retail brands say its clients estimate that some 20% to 80% of all branded products on Taobao are fake.