One morning in late January, Jake picked up the box on his desk, tore through the packing tape, unearthed the iPhone case inside, snapped a picture, in addition to uploaded in which to an Amazon review he’d been writing. The review included a sentence about the case’s sleek design in addition to cool, clear volume buttons. He finished off the blurb using a glowing title (“The perfect case!!”) in addition to rated the product a perfect a few stars. Click. Submitted.
Jake never tried the case. He doesn’t even have an iPhone.
Jake then copied the link to his review in addition to pasted in which into an invite-only Slack channel for paid Amazon reviewers. A day later, he received a notification coming from PayPal, alerting him to a completely new credit in his account: a $10 refund for the phone case he’ll never use, along with $3 for his trouble — potentially more, if he can resell the iPhone case.
Jake is actually not his real name. He — along with the four various other reviewers who spoke to BuzzFeed News due to This particular story — wanted to remain anonymous for fear Amazon could ban their accounts. They are part of an extensive, invisible workforce fueling a review-fraud economy in which persists in every corner of the largest marketplace on the internet. Drawn in by easy money in addition to free stuff, they’ve seeded Amazon with fake a few-star reviews of LED lights, dog bowls, clothing, in addition to even health items like prenatal vitamins — all meant to convince you in which This particular product is actually the best in addition to bolster the sales of profiteers hoping to grab a piece of the Amazon Gold Rush. Meanwhile, sellers trying to play by the rules are struggling to stay afloat amid a sea of fraudulent reviews, in addition to buyers are unwittingly purchasing inferior or downright faulty products. in addition to Amazon is actually all nevertheless powerless to stop in which.
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The systems in which create fraudulent reviews are a complicated web of subreddits, invite-only Slack channels, private Discord servers, in addition to closed Facebook groups, nevertheless the incentives are simple: Being a a few-star product is actually crucial to selling inventory at scale in Amazon’s intensely competitive marketplace — so crucial in which merchants are willing to pay thousands of people to review their products positively.
At just over $760 billion, Amazon is actually the entire world’s second most valuable company, behind Apple. CEO Jeff Bezos recently revealed the company counts more than 100 million paying Amazon Prime members globally, the $119-per-year membership in which gets subscribers — the most devoted Amazon customers — free two-day shipping; music, TV, in addition to movie streaming; access to an e-book library; in addition to more. The company operates 13 third-party seller marketplaces around the entire world, in addition to rents space to house those sellers’ inventory in more than 150 warehouses. In 2017, third-party merchants brought in $32 billion of revenue, in addition to nearly 300,000 completely new sellers joined the marketplace last year alone.
The best way to make in which on Amazon is actually with positive reviews, in addition to the best way to get positive reviews is actually to buy them.
Reviews are a buyer’s best chance to navigate This particular dizzyingly crowded market in addition to a seller’s chance to stand out coming from the crowd. In a 2011 survey, 87% of consumers said a positive review confirmed their decision to purchase a product; online customer reviews are the second most trusted source of product information, behind recommendations coming from family in addition to friends. nevertheless only 3% to 10% of customers leave reviews. The best way to make in which on Amazon is actually with positive reviews, in addition to the best way to get positive reviews is actually to buy them.
In October 2016, Amazon banned free items or steep discounts in exchange for reviews facilitated by third parties. nevertheless Tommy Noonan, CEO of ReviewMeta, a site in which analyzes Amazon listings, said what he calls “unnatural reviews” — in which is actually, reviews, in which his algorithm indicates might be fake — have returned to the platform. In June 2017, Noonan noticed an uptick in unnatural reviews along with an increase inside the average rating of products, in addition to the rate of growth hasn’t slowed since.
Amazon’s ban didn’t stop sellers coming from recruiting reviewers. in which only drove the practice underground. Reviewers are no longer simply incentivized with free stuff — they’re commissioned specifically for a a few-star rating in exchange for cash. The bad reviews are harder to spot, too: They don’t contain any disclosures (because incentivized reviews are banned, in addition to a disclosure could indicate in which the review violates Amazon’s terms). Paid reviewers also typically pay for products with their own credit cards on their own Amazon accounts, with which they have spent at least $50, all to meet the criteria for a “verified purchase,” so their reviews are marked as such.
Amazon won’t reveal how many reviews — fraudulent or total — in which has. nevertheless based on his analysis of Amazon data, Noonan estimates in which Amazon contains around 250 million reviews — 9.1%, or 5.3 million, of which he believes are “unnatural.”
An Amazon spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the percentage of inauthentic reviews on the platform is actually “tiny,” nevertheless could not be more specific. In a statement, she wrote, “Amazon is actually investing heavily to detect in addition to prevent inauthentic reviews. In addition to advance detection, we use a machine-learned algorithm in which gives more weight to newer, more helpful reviews, apply strict criteria to qualify for the Amazon verified purchase badge in addition to enforce a significant dollar amount requirement to participate.”
Internal investigators also examine reviews in addition to “non-Amazon forums” used for purchasing reviews, the spokesperson said. Amazon says in which blocks or suspends accounts belonging to any of the parties involved.
nevertheless conversations with sellers, customers, in addition to reviewers reveal in which review abuse continues, despite the company’s efforts.
An unnatural review doesn’t necessarily mean a product is actually inferior. nevertheless the problem with paid-for reviews is actually in which they make in which difficult for consumers — even savvy ones — to know if what they’re buying is actually actually Great or bad.
In December, Kevin Votaw of Fort Collins, Colorado, ordered a highly rated Samsung Galaxy S8 screen protector for $10 using his girlfriend’s Amazon Prime account.
in which was, he said, “terrible”: The material was so thick he couldn’t type, generating the product completely unusable. Frustrated, Votaw asked Amazon for a refund for the unreturnable product, which incorporates a sticky, adhesive backing in addition to can’t be reused. “I went back to the listing, thinking, ‘Surely all of these reviews are wrong,’” he said. nevertheless the product was unavailable — “like the company was rolling these protectors out in batches, then taking them off Amazon.”
Amazon removed the screen protector listing after a BuzzFeed News inquiry, nevertheless two various other listings with nearly identical product photography have more than 550 in addition to 150 reviews each, all of which include a a few-star rating in addition to are unverified.
Votaw has since found a protector using a mediocre 3.5-star rating in which he’s happy with: “in which works perfectly,” he said. “I’ll be leaving a great review.”
Type in “Amazon Review” into Facebook’s search box, in addition to more than a hundred groups will pop up. Two of the more well-known groups, Amazon Review Club in addition to US — Amazon Review Club, which had 69,000 in addition to 60,000 members, respectively, were recently shut down, nevertheless many more groups remain, with tens of thousands of members apiece.
The groups’ posts read like the most random garage sale ever: lawn aerator shoes, lint removers, diaper pads, sex toys. completely new products are posted every minute. Most sellers are Chinese; in February, group members were warned in which lunar holidays might slow down payments. Posts include a photo of the product up for grabs, using a description in which says, “PP refund after review,” which means interested parties will receive a PayPal payment after proof they’ve published a review.
One product listed inside the group, a posture corrector designed to train your back to sit upright, was offering an unusually large commission: a $30 Amazon gift card in which included $20 for the product in addition to an extra $10 for the reviewer, who needed to be an Amazon Prime member in addition to write a review in which contained images.
Meanwhile, the 36,629-member /r/slavelabour subreddit, which is actually dedicated to getting “jobs done well below market rate,” incorporates a formalized process for posting opportunities for could-be Amazon reviewers.
Sellers post “tasks” in which include leaving positive reviews on their products — or one-star reviews on competitors’ products. One listing read, “The reviews don’t need to be verified or anything, so the task won’t take more than a minute of your time. I will send you the link to the product, you go in addition to leave a brief 1 star review, in addition to in which’s in which. I will pay $5 to you through Paypal as soon as the review is actually live on Amazon.” Within a week, 27 users had placed “bids” on the task, expressing their interest.
The most active reviewers become headhunters, working to recruit /r/slavelabour users into private Discord servers or Slack channels dedicated solely to feeding the Amazon review ecosystem.
Sellers typically pay between $4 to $5 per review, plus a refund of the product. Moderators take a cut off the top — around 20% to 25% for the Discord server I gained access to, nevertheless reviewers get to keep the item for free.
On Jan. 13, the server’s moderator published a call for reviewers interested in “Before You Go To The Toilet Poop Spray,” a natural deodorizer carrying the “scent of Australia” by a company called Veil.
The poop spray’s listing shows numerous negative reviews, followed by a string of more positive reviews published after Jan. 13. Both positive in addition to negative reviews are “verified purchases,” generating in which nearly impossible to differentiate between commissioned in addition to genuine reviews. None of the reviews contain a disclosure in which the product was received for free or in which the review was paid for by the seller.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, Greg Doney, a Veil Fragrances representative, acknowledged the company had paid for reviews, “nevertheless you have to as its [sic] truly hard to launch a product without them.”
When you take a closer look at the poop spray customers’ product review history, a pattern emerges. In addition to the poop spray, Amazon customers “Brian” in addition to “Sharon” also gave a floating shelf bracket, which had been posted to the Discord server earlier, high marks.
Brian said the product was a “truly sturdy shelf” (in which’s a bracket, not a stand-alone shelf); in addition to Sharon noted they’re “easy to mount” in addition to “durable.” The critical reviews, meanwhile, warn customers “DO NOT BUY!” in addition to “HUGE waste of money,” citing wall damage in addition to poorly made brackets. (The shelf company did not respond to a request for comment sent to its Amazon seller profile coming from BuzzFeed News.)
The same accounts also reviewed “Boric Acid Suppositories” for vaginal health. The supplements are intended to be inserted into the vagina twice daily For two main weeks, according to the product’s label. in which purports to provide “vaginal health support” in addition to “relief coming from odor, itchiness, pain, burning, in addition to soreness.” The capsules were posted to the Discord server on Jan. 22 — in addition to reviews coming from Brian in addition to Sharon appeared shortly after in which.
Brian commented in which his girlfriend was “having pain during sex in addition to in which was not because of me,” in addition to the supplements cured her. Sharon mentioned in which was the “best in addition to cheapest” option for female hygiene in addition to health. Neither of the reviews were marked as verified purchases. A a few-star review by D. Pham even says the boric acid “doesn’t taste bad” even though the pill is actually not taken orally. (D. Pham also gave the floating shelf bracket a few stars.)
Meanwhile, a one-star review said in which the product was a “nightmare,” citing how the pill “feels like a clump of cement mix in my vagina in which is actually just gritty in addition to totally dries in which out.” Another said the suppository caused “an irritating burning sensation in which lasted for hours.” The company did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Dr. Jenny Jaque, assistant professor of gynecology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, boric acid suppositories should only be used under certain circumstances, under the supervision of a health care provider. “Boric acid is actually not candy, in addition to you need to be careful,” she said. “in which can cause irritation: Your vagina will hurt; you’d feel pain like your vagina is actually on fire.” She added in which “in which is actually truly toxic if ingested by accident.”
The Discord server recently posted turmeric curcumin vitamins, as well as myoinositol capsules, made by the same brand, listed inside the prenatal vitamin category. The same reviewers — Sharon in addition to D. Pham — gave the prenatal vitamins a few stars. Both of their reviews were marked as verified purchases. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Amazon said in which has applied stricter criteria for leaving verified purchase reviews. US reviewers must have a password-protected account in addition to have made at least $50 in purchases on Amazon using a valid credit card.
During a hot summer in 2010, Jamie Whaley discovered a problem with her fitted sheets: They were breaking loose in addition to ending up wrapped around her husband Jimmy’s ankles.
Whaley, then a 40-year-old nursing student in Texas, went in search of a solution. The suspenderlike designs on older sheet fasteners were too cumbersome, so Whaley developed her own, using a shock cord to make an easy button-enabled tightening mechanism. She called her completely new invention BedBand.
Jimmy Whaley convinced his wife to start selling BedBands on Amazon. The product worked, in addition to people wanted to buy in which: Over the next few years, BedBand became Amazon’s best-selling sheet fastener, with more $700,000 in annual sales.
Then, in October 2014, BedBand’s revenue was suddenly cut in half to about $350,000. Whaley, who had given up a nursing career, in addition to Jim, who had also joined the company full time as COO, were devastated. “Someone was selling an exact replica of our product, in addition to we couldn’t use our patent because in which was pending,” said Whaley.
Counterfeits, sold in bulk on AliExpress, had flooded Amazon’s sheet fastener market, in addition to many gained dozens of a few-star reviews very quickly. Over the next eight months, sales tanked. “There were tears,” said Whaley. “We wondered whether in which was time to look for different jobs.” She was forced to lay off eight contractors, half her staff at the time.
“in which’s stressful, knowing in which Amazon is actually our big store.”
Amazon took down the copycats once BedBand was granted a patent; in which was a year after sales started off dropping, nevertheless in which was too late. The patent didn’t stop competitors coming from leaving negative one-star reviews on BedBand’s listings: “You start looking a bit deeper…in addition to you can see they’ve left a few-star reviews for our competitors. Or you’ll see in which two different buyers have been reviewing the same type of products, our competitors’ products,” Whaley said.
BedBand is actually currently the best-selling fastener, nevertheless in which may not be for long. “in which’s stressful, knowing in which Amazon is actually our big store,” she said. To diversify revenue income, Whaley started off selling BedBands on Walmart.com, Jet.com, Sears.com, in addition to various other retailers.
Whaley was careful about how she discussed Amazon, which is actually her primary source of income —“I don’t want to mess where I nest,” she said — nevertheless seemed uneasy about being at the whim of Amazon’s algorithms: “Some days, all of a sudden we’re fifth. When you see a fast shift like in which in addition to [our competitors] end up with reviews all of a sudden, in which’s frustrating. You just don’t know if tomorrow these competitors will knock our sales down.”
Paid review writing is actually the modern lemonade stand. According to the people who do in which, in which’s a quick, easy way to earn a few bucks in addition to get free stuff — nevertheless not a career. in addition to because the bidding, writing, in addition to transaction happen online, in which can all be done coming from a laptop in your bedroom.
Many reviewers who spoke to BuzzFeed News are men in their late teens or early twenties who viewed the activity as a hobby. All wished to remain anonymous, out of fear of being caught by Amazon, which typically results in revoked reviewing privileges or, inside the most severe cases, being banned coming from reusing the same delivery address or payment method using a completely new account.
Josh, which is actually not his real name, is actually fairly completely new to reviewing; he discovered in which through /r/slavelabour. He said he’s in in which for the stuff: “You get to keep the product, generating sure in which’s a plus. in which’s interesting to test out completely new in addition to unique products in my opinion.”
The most industrious paid reviewers become moderators in addition to begin facilitating review deals themselves. Frank, whose name has been changed, manages an Amazon review Slack channel in his spare time. The entrepreneurial 18-year-old scours Amazon for products in which aren’t well-rated in addition to offers the product’s seller his Slack channel’s review services. Listings using a tiny number of reviews in addition to a low-star rating are ideal candidates. “If [a product listing] has 30 reviews with an average of 2.5 stars, in which’s worth in which in addition to I’ll reach out,” he said.
Frank only earns about $20 coming from reviews a month, in addition to sometimes a bit extra through seller negotiations. “I get about 30% for every review in which one of our reviewers does,” he said. The bulk of Frank’s review income comes coming from reselling the items he reviews on eBay, where he makes “about a couple hundred” monthly.
Another reviewer, whom we’ll call Evan, is actually part of a private 10-person Slack channel in addition to makes about $75 a month coming from reviews. He’s left more than 150 reviews for items like weighted workout vests, 30-day hair growth pills, in addition to car phone chargers.
“in which’s great for tiny investments in addition to savings I’m working on,” he said. To write his commissioned reviews, Evan takes inspiration coming from existing reviews, “then I’ll cobble together a few keywords.”
One reviewer, Devan, who asked to be identified by his first name only, however, denies any wrongdoing in addition to doesn’t mind being named. The college student swears he provides nothing nevertheless his honest opinion in addition to thinks incentivized Amazon reviews aren’t a scam. He did not know incentivized reviews violated Amazon’s terms of service until BuzzFeed News told him.
He did admit he benefits coming from incentivized reviews (which he writes daily): He reuses the bubble wrap in addition to various other shipping materials coming from Amazon for his eBay business, through which he resells items bought on clearance.
nevertheless incentivized reviews on Amazon, he says, are just an evolution of marketing tactics in which have been around for a long time. “At a sporting event, Mountain Dew will hand out soda for free, in addition to if people like in which they post on social media or whatever. in which’s kind of the same thing, in addition to like at Costco or Walmart, where you get free samples,” Devan said.
“Some of these sellers are mom in addition to pop shops, in addition to a lot of companies just want your honest feedback…I know a lot of people whoaren’t in in which for the money. They’re just trying to find better products for people,” Devan said.
Devan’s right — there are “mom in addition to pop shops” on Amazon, like Whaley’s BedBand business. nevertheless an increasing number of sellers are folks with little e-commerce experience or product expertise, looking to take advantage of Amazon’s millions of customers — in addition to they need high ratings to supplant the existing best-seller.
Through the “Amazon FBA” or “Fulfillment by Amazon” program, anyone can open their own Amazon storefront. in which’s easy: Buy products in bulk coming from an online wholesale supplier, like AliExpress, then send the inventory to one of Amazon’s warehouses, where Amazon will take care of all aspects of distribution, coming from payment to order fulfillment to shipping.
David, whose name has been changed, is actually an FBA seller who has considered buying a few-star reviews. “in which feels like the people generating the most money are those who are violating Amazon’s terms of service,” he said.
David didn’t invent anything. He didn’t go to medical school. nevertheless he makes about $1,000 a month selling suture training pads for medical professionals on Amazon. “in which’s a hobby, like video games. Plus, Warren Buffett said something like, ‘If you want to make money, you have to practice generating money.’”
“in which’s a hobby, like video games. Plus, Warren Buffett said something like, ‘If you want to make money, you have to practice generating money.’”
David got started off using a site called Jungle Scout. A subscription, which costs about $350 per year, provides metrics in which show what products Amazon customers are buying a lot of — in addition to features categories where the top seller incorporates a poor or average star rating. in which mediocre star rating indicates in which there’s an opportunity inside the market for another seller to poach some of in which low-rated product’s customers. “What I found were suture pads, like a simulation skin for medical students. Then I went on Alibaba. All the Chinese suppliers are on there in addition to they fulfill bulk orders.”
David — in addition to various other FBA sellers like him — swarmed the Amazon suture pad market. “The original guy, the guy whose product was featured on Jungle Scout, started off losing a lot of sales because of all the competition,” he said. in which became apparent, according to David, in which the seller, Your Design Medical, was leaving one- in addition to two-star reviews on competitors’ products. (Amazon said in which, after an investigation, in which did not find Your Design Medical guilty of reviews abuse. Your Design Medical did not respond to a request for comment sent to its customer support email address coming from BuzzFeed News.)
The only completely new seller performing well, in spite of the original seller’s bad reviews, was also, in David’s view, “cheating the system.” “The listing had 33 a few-star reviews. There’s no way you can get 33 reviews in two months. in which’s unusual for a product like This particular,” he said.
inside the end, David didn’t end up buying reviews — nevertheless added in which “if I truly needed FBA for my income, I could have.”
Many compensated reviewers, in addition to the sellers who hire them, don’t see themselves as bad actors. They’re just one of the thousands of various other reviewers in addition to sellers doing the exact same thing. Taking shortcuts, they say, is actually just leveling the playing field. Inside Amazon’s massive marketplace, there are lots of places to hide, to optimize, to cheat — in addition to, because sellers can’t control the algorithms, they’ll do everything they can to sway them.
Amazon has tried to crack down on the review fraud on its platform. The company has sued more than 1,000 people for writing or selling fake reviews. In its 2015 suit against freelancers on the website Fiverr, Amazon said in which “takes the credibility of its customer reviews seriously,” in addition to also asserted, “While tiny in number, these reviews can significantly undermine the trust in which consumers in addition to the vast majority of sellers in addition to manufacturers place in Amazon, which in turn tarnishes Amazon’s brand.”
In its seller marketplace guidelines, provided to BuzzFeed News by a third-party seller, Amazon says in which sellers “may not offer compensation for a review, in addition to you may not review your own products or your competitors’ products.” Sellers can “ask buyers to write a review in a neutral manner,” without asking specifically for positive reviews, or “ask reviewers to change or remove their reviews.” in addition to yet all of these behaviors persist.
Sam Feldman started off selling CardBuddy, a stick-on wallet for phones, on Amazon as a college student. CardBuddy was the first leather product of its kind on Amazon, nevertheless Feldman didn’t have a patent. Competitors quickly copied the product, its packaging, in addition to even used CardBuddy’s photos. One seller had gained 500 reviews in two months. According to Feldman, the reviews were “clearly fake.”
“One day my sales were cut in half, in addition to in which was so upsetting,” Feldman told BuzzFeed News. “in which stayed like in which forever. More competition came, in addition to maybe they had better photos or better titles…nevertheless I don’t know,” he said.
An Amazon spokesperson said, “We encourage rights owners who have product authenticity concerns to notify us; we investigate all claims thoroughly. We remove suspected counterfeit items as we become aware of them, in addition to we permanently remove bad actors coming from selling on Amazon.” Feldman says in which the company promptly took down the copycat listing in addition to marked CardBuddy as the copyright holder of its own photos. nevertheless according to Feldman, in which took a few months for Amazon to remove the hundreds of disingenuous reviews.
Feldman thinks Amazon could do more to tackle fraudulence on the platform: “coming from one side, Amazon started off This particular business, in addition to they’re inviting people in to sell on their website. Amazon is actually looking out for the system as a whole, in addition to not for me, which I understand. nevertheless, at the same time, what do you do when someone’s generating a living off of in which?”
Shutting down disingenuous reviews is actually tricky for Amazon. By doing so, the company risks alienating sellers, a core part of its business. In 2017, more than half of units sold on Amazon globally were coming from third-party sellers, in addition to more than 140,000 of what Amazon defines as “tiny in addition to medium-sized businesses” surpassed $100,000 in sales. The company earns revenue not only coming from hosting product listings nevertheless coming from each sale made through the site, coming from fulfillment fees based on weight for each shipping order in addition to use of storage real estate in its fulfillment centers. Revenue coming from seller services accounted for $23 billion in 2016.
Amazon is actually the place to be for e-commerce sellers in addition to is actually increasingly seen as a utility. In 2017, Amazon accounted for nearly half of all e-commerce sales inside the US (44%) with $196.8 billion in sales.
“Amazon truly is actually— in which is actually a great site, nevertheless as prevalent as fake reviews are over the internet, I don’t know how anybody can get in front of in which. Cheaters are always going to cheat.”
Like entrepreneurs during the dot-com boom, people are rushing to sell on Amazon, in addition to sites like AliExpress make in which easy for anyone to acquire massive amounts of inventory. (AliExpress even runs its own fulfillment program.) This particular rush — which includes acquiring positive reviews to rise to the top of Amazon’s search algorithms to sell off in which inventory as quickly as possible — can displace sellers, who are less in tune with the velocity in addition to inhumanity of the platform’s algorithms in addition to how punishing they can be as a result.
The company, through lawsuits, human moderators, in addition to algorithms, is actually trying to keep fake reviews off the site, nevertheless the review mills in which produce those disingenuous ratings may always be one step ahead of Amazon’s ability to moderate them.
Like Twitter, Facebook, in addition to Google, Amazon set out to create a neutral platform in addition to invited the internet to come in addition to make something of in which. nevertheless like Twitter, Facebook, in addition to Google, Amazon allowed its platform to be big in addition to comprehensive — in addition to grow far beyond its control. nevertheless the difference between Amazon in addition to, say, Twitter, is actually in which its users’ livelihoods are dependent on the former.
Meanwhile, Amazon’s customers — left inside the dark about the sophisticated mechanics behind the seemingly genuine reviews in which guide their purchasing decisions — continue to buy products of shoddy quality in which don’t meet their expectations.
Whaley paused for a while when asked what more Amazon could do to keep reviews off the platform. “The fake reviews in addition to sales are so intertwined currently. I don’t know how they can get rid of in which. in which seems hopeless. The reviews process was amazing when they started off in which, nevertheless in which’s been so corrupted currently,” she said.
using a heavy sigh, Whaley continued: “Amazon truly is actually— in which is actually a great site, nevertheless as prevalent as fake reviews are over the internet, I don’t know how anybody can get in front of in which. Cheaters are always going to cheat.” ●
Nicole Nguyen covers products in addition to personal technology for BuzzFeed News in addition to is actually based in San Francisco.
Contact Nicole Nguyen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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