The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has settled charges with beauty brand Sunday Riley after the brand posted fake reviews for itself on Sephora's website. As a result of an investigation, the FTC found that Sunday Riley's employees were engaged in review astroturfing at the direction of Sunday Riley herself, the brand's founder and "lead formulator" — a title which has also come under scrutiny after it was revealed that Riley has no chemistry qualifications.

According to the FTC's complaint, Sunday Riley must cease its fake-review operations, though there is criticism that the agency is not pushing hard enough to chastise the brand.

A former employee blew the whistle on Sunday Riley's fake reviews, which prompted the FTC investigation.

In October 2018, a former Sunday Riley employee became a whistle-blower after they posted an internal company e-mail on the popular subReddit r/MakeupAddiction. In the post, the former employee alleged that the employees were encouraged to leave positive reviews of Sunday Riley products on Sephora's website, and to "dislike" negative reviews in order to push them down on product pages.

In the e-mail, employees were given instructions on how to set up a virtual private network (or VPN) to hide their IP addresses. Additionally, it stressed that employees should leave reviews on other beauty products in order for their Sunday Riley reviews to appear legitimate. The goal was to avoid Sephora's anti-fraud review measures. 

The e-mail also directed employees to send screenshots of their fake Sunday Riley reviews to a redacted staff member.

In the settlement filing, the FTC has banned Sunday Riley from leaving fake reviews on its products.

The FTC filing, which is public record, cites Sunday Riley (the brand) and Riley herself as the chief respondents (similar to a defendant in a litigation setting) in the complaint.

According to the filing, the investigation found that "on multiple occasions between November 2015 and August 2017, Sunday Riley Skincare managers, including Respondent Sunday Riley, posted reviews of Sunday Riley brand cosmetic products on the Sephora website using fake accounts created just for that purpose or requested that other employees do so."

Sunday Riley staff were instructed to leave Sephora reviews for "Martian, UFO, Tidal, Power Couple, Good Genes, Luna … Tidal and Good Genes are 4.2 and I would like to see them at 4.8+. UFO and Martian are at 4.9 — let’s keep it that way!" 

Additionally, employees were told to "dislike" less-glowing reviews, because "after enough dislikes, it is removed. This directly translates to sales!!"

You can read the full FTC complaint here.

As a result of the investigation, the FTC found some pretty alarming details.

"Numerous reviews of Sunday Riley brand products on the Sephora website did not reflect the independent experiences or opinions of impartial ordinary users of the products because they were written by Sunday Riley and her employees," the FTC settlement states.

As a result, "the acts and practices of Respondents as alleged in this complaint constitute unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce in violation of Section 5(a) of the Federal Trade Commission Act."

Still, the brand will not face any actionable consequences.

The FTC notably did not include any punitive measures in their complaint, such as a fine, regulatory measures, or criminal charges under RICO laws. The language of the complaint is simply a warning: "Therefore, the Federal Trade Commission … has issued this Complaint against Respondents."

An FTC official dissented against the complaint, citing the apparent leniency.

FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra criticized the complaint, arguing that it doesn't provide any deterrent measures against Sunday Riley, or other beauty and skin-care brands that may be engaged in such practices. The filing does not contain "redress, no disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, no notice to consumers, and no admission of wrongdoing," Chopra said in a statement, reported The Fashion Law.

"This settlement sends the wrong message to the marketplace. Dishonest firms may come to conclude that posting fake reviews is a viable strategy, given the proposed outcome here," said Chopra. "Consumers may come to lack confidence that reviews are truthful."

Will consumers continue to use Sunday Riley products or trust Sephora reviews?

It's an open question whether this complaint will have any lasting impact on this very real issue. Given that Sunday Riley allegedly was able to get away with faking its own reviews for two years, it begs the question, are other brands doing the same thing? How can customers ensure that product reviews are from other valid customers and not astroturfing brands?

It's a start, but retailers and the government have to do more. 

photo: iStock

Sephora does have a "verified buyer" button that appears next to some reviews, but it is unknown if Sunday Riley was able to obtain the button in their reviews.

Revelist has reached out to Sunday Riley and Sephora for comment.