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04.28.10

Real Housewives Amazon Scam

New York housewife Jill Zarin has been accused of anonymously boosting her new book on Amazon. Doree Shafrir investigates—and reveals Zarin asked her to review her book on Amazon.

A couple weeks ago, an Amazon reviewer named Alana Chandler—the No. 1 reviewer, according to Amazon, of new books on the site—left a one-star review for Secrets of a Jewish Mother, the new book by Real Housewives of New York City cast member Jill Zarin. "I wanted to find this warm and loving but it seemed more like a doctrine in many cases that isn't loving and could be detrimental on several levels," Chandler wrote in her 1,500-word-plus review. "Not to mention it's been widely reported that it's for show rather than actual advice the authors themselves believe."

Zarin asked me to leave a review for her book when I interviewed her for The Daily Beast a few weeks ago, just before it came out.

Three days after Chandler's review went up, an Amazon user named “Susan Saunders” left a comment on the review. Saunders wrote that Chandler was "a jealous person who likes to gang up on people." She continued: "I feel sorry for you but more for your cat." (Chandler's reviewer photo shows her with her dog.) "Someone needs to take your cat away from you and give it to a loving person. Jealous of Jill? You are just making her more famous and people are buying her book because it is a GREAT book about Jewish Mother's [sic]. You are ANTISEMITIC and it shows."

Saunders quickly deleted her comment, but not before someone took a screenshot and sent it to Zap2It.

Why so shy all of a sudden? Because other Amazon reviewers quickly figured out that "Saunders" was actually Zarin. It didn’t take much: The Amazon wish list for "Saunders" had items listed on it for Zarin’s husband Bobby and her daughter Ally. And Saunders also had the same birthday as Jill. From there, the review thread got ugly, with commenters accusing her of a range of crimes, from a lack of Internet savviness to being “pathetic.”

When contacted by The Daily Beast, Chandler said that "Saunders" had sent her a "threatening email" after her review went up. "It was her follow-up to the Susan Saunders threat to me on Amazon," said Chandler.

Zarin didn't respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast, though she wrote a non-denial denial on her Facebook page: "Some crazy fans are saying I wrote my own review. I love the book, of course. People in my life have written wonderful things about the book. Some fans of the show need to find something else to do then write hateful things about me and my family. It is sad and I feel sorry for them. If you read the book and liked it, ...please write positive reviews. Thank you for all the support!"

Of course, Zarin is just the latest in a long line of authors and writers caught using sock puppets—fake identities used to bolster their argument or, in this case, their book. And it's not just reality show contestants who have been emboldened by the seeming anonymity of the Internet. Respected British historian Orlando Figes last week admitted that he had left dozens of scathing reviews under a pseudonym on Amazon.co.uk for his academic rivals, while simultaneously leaving reviews praising his own work. He first tried to place the blame on his wife, but soon admitted that he was, in fact, the author of the reviews in question.

And in 2007, freelancer Peter Hyman was suspected of using an alias to promote his work to Gawker; a "fan" named "Margo Leitner" would occasionally email Gawker to gush about Hyman's latest journalistic triumph—though she never seemed to email Gawker (where I worked at the time) about anyone, or anything, else.

But back to Zarin. On the page for Secrets of a Jewish Mother, there are 116 reviews for the book: 30 five-star reviews, one four-star review, one three-star review, five two-star reviews, and 79 one-star reviews—and several Amazon commenters have suggested that the five-star reviews are mostly from Zarin's friends and associates.

That wouldn't necessarily surprise me. After all, Zarin asked me to leave a review for her book when I interviewed her for The Daily Beast a few weeks ago, just before it came out. Which I had forgotten until this scandal erupted.

According to my transcript, here is how it played out:

"I would love you to write a review for us," Jill said, after I told her I had, in fact, liked reading the book.

"I don't know if I can," I said, trying to be polite.

"Can you go under an assumed name?" Jill asked.

I shook my head.

She laughed. "Why not?"

At that point, Jill's sister Lisa Wexler jumped in. "'Cause she said it's not allowed because it's unethical. She's not comfortable," Lisa said.

"I don't know, you could just say you loved the book," Jill said. "Anonymous. Is that so bad?"

"It is if she says she's not allowed to do it," Lisa said.

"Ask [your boyfriend]," Jill said. "If you want to help us, that would really help us."

I did not, alas, ask him.

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Doree Shafrir has contributed to The New York Observer, The New Yorker, Slate, and The Awl, and is the co-author of Love, Mom. She is a former editor at Gawker. Her website is www.doreeshafrir.com.