An Italian court handed the owner of PromoSalento, which sold falsified reviews to hospitality businesses in the country, a nine month jail term and ordered them to pay approximately €8,000 in costs and damages.
TripAdvisor today hailed the decision as a “landmark ruling” and says it is keen to work with other international watchdogs such as the UK Competitions and Markets Authority to tackle the issue.
“Writing fake reviews has always been fraud, but this is the first time we’ve seen someone sent to jail as a result,” says Brad Young, VP, associate general counsel at TripAdvisor.
“We invest a lot in fraud prevention and we’re successful at tackling it – since 2015, we’ve put a stop to the activity of more than 60 different paid review companies worldwide. However, we can only do so much alone.”
TripAdvisor says it first heard of PromoSalento in 2015 when several Italian businesses forwarded emails from the company offering to boost their profile online.
The site then blocked or removed over 1,000 attempts by the fraudster to submit reviews on hundreds of different properties.
Hotels that had paid for fake reviews were penalised by being demoted in the TripAdvisor Popularity Ranking. Where “suspicious activity” continued a red badge was posted on the hotel’s listing page warning travellers the business was trying to manipulate reviews.
The issue of fake online reviews has long been a bugbear of the UK hospitality sector. In 2015 the #noreceiptnoreview campaign received widespread support after calling on the site to only allow users to post reviews if they could provide a photo of a receipt. However, at the time TripAdvisor said the idea was "unfair" to customers who had visited but not paid the bill.
Last December freelance writer Oobah Butler managed to get his shed in Dulwich to top the restaurant rankings in London on TripAdvisor thanks to fake reviews from him and his friends. The site dismissed the stunt as a "misguided attempt to test us".
In 2017 an industry survey found that 85% of businesses had fallen victim to the practice or been ‘blackmailed’ with the threat of a bad review by customers seeking refund.
TripAdvisor says anyone approached or contacted by companies or individuals offering fake reviews should not engage with them but share the information with TripAdvisor directly at firstname.lastname@example.org