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An Italian court handed down a nine-month prison sentence to a person who wrote fake hotel reviews on TripAdvisor in exchange for money from hotels aiming to boost their profile on the giant reviews platform.
PromoSalento successfully posted fake reviews on behalf of several hundred businesses. While posting fake reviews is not new, the punishment, in this case, is extraordinary.
The owner of PromoSalento, an Italian company that sold fake review packages to hotels, was sentenced to jail and ordered to pay about $9,200, or €8,000, in costs and damages for the crime of having written fake reviews using a false identity.
“Writing fake reviews has always been fraud, but this is the first time we’ve seen someone sent to jail as a result,” said Brad Young, vice president, associate general counsel at TripAdvisor, in a statement.
In 2015, the company first caught wind that PromoSalento was offering to write fake reviews after several Italian businesses forwarded promotional emails they had received.
TripAdvisor did a technical analysis and then either blocked or removed more than 1,000 attempts by PromoSalento to submit reviews on hundreds of different properties.
The company notified businesses it had linked to fake reviews submitted by PromoSalento and demoted their positions in its popularity rankings. For any company that didn’t shape up, TripAdvisor slapped a red badge on its listing page warning travelers that the business has been trying to manipulate reviews.
Since 2015, TripAdvisor has put a stop to the activity of more than 60 paid review companies worldwide, the company said. In July the company posted online more information about how it moderates reviews and stamps out fraud.
The company has said that most attempts at review fraud are committed by a small minority of hotel and restaurant owners trying to boost their profile unfairly rather than knock another property.
Anyone can post a review on TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Minube, whereas a guest may only post a review of a hotel on online travel agency platforms if the person actually books at least one night at the hotel through the agency.
In 2012, TripAdvisor was scolded by a UK watchdog group, the Advertising Standards Authority, for using promotional wording on its site saying that it offered “reviews you can trust… from real travellers… and trusted advice from real travellers.” The group said the company couldn’t back up the claim by proving that all of the reviews were genuine and from real travelers. However, strictly speaking, no system, based on verified bookers or not, could meet that standard.
Regardless, TripAdvisor’s branding campaigns have since moved on and now often feature a new tagline: “Know better. Book better. Go better.”
Besides touting its stringent fraud-fighting efforts, the company has cited surveys it has commissioned showing that an overwhelming majority of users of its site find the reviews provide an accurate reflection of what they see when they visit properties.
Enforcement is key to its efforts. “We have begun conversations with regulatory bodies in several global markets, including the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the UK Competition and Markets Authority, as well as other European enforcement authorities to discuss opportunities to work together to share information and support their efforts to tackle online fake reviews,” said a TripAdvisor spokesperson.
That said, the company has said it believes the amount of fraud attempted on TripAdvisor is “extremely small.”