The value of reviews is substantial, for travelers who rely on them and for travel companies that benefit from them.
But wherever there is value, there is always someone trying to run a game. Now TripAdvisor is sharing details about how the owner of a reviews-for-payment business in Italy ended up in jail, with a criminal record and fine.
TripAdvisor says that its investigators were tipped off by an Italian hospitality business which had received email promotions from a business called PromoSalento to boost its profile in exchange for a fee. Investigators then identified the people behind the fraudulent review service and confirmed that they had not only advertised fake reviews as a service but also tried to post fake reviews on the TripAdvisor site.
The company explains:
“Our investigators applied advanced digital forensics to identify and analyze links between PromoSalento and attempted submissions to our site. Over the course of our investigation, our technical analysis identified and then either blocked or removed more than 1,000 attempts by PromoSalento to submit reviews to the TripAdvisor site on hundreds of different properties.
“PromoSalento attempted to avoid our scrutiny by regularly changing their usernames and email addresses, but our fraud detection processes use a suite of advanced technologies to evaluate hundreds of review attributes such as IP addresses, browser types and even the screen resolution of a reviewer’s device.
“Based on that analysis, we were able to see a trail of digital and behavioral ‘breadcrumbs’ that led our team straight back to PromoSalento.”
TripAdvisor also penalized properties which had paid for fake reviews through ranking demotion and, in some cases, flagging repeat offenders with a red badge that warns users that the company has attempted to manipulate reviews.
But the actual prosecution came from elsewhere. TripAdvisor says that PromoSalento was already being investigated by the Italian Postal and Communications Police. A restauranteur from Trieste had brought a case against the company after receiving advertising emails offering paid reviews.
In June of this year, the Criminal Court of Lecce found the owner guilty of using a fake identity to commit fraud. He has been sentenced to 9 months in prison and will have to pay 8,000 euros in costs and damages.
“We see this as a landmark ruling for the Internet. Writing fake reviews on TripAdvisor has always been a violation of the law in many jurisdictions, for instance falling under the EU Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, as well as national laws relating to consumer protection, fraud and false advertising.
“However, this is the first time we have seen the laws being enforced to the point of securing a criminal conviction.
“The judgment makes clear that writing fake reviews constitutes criminal conduct under laws relating to impersonation fraud.”
TripAdvisor needs to get review fraud under control in order to ensure the long-term usefulness of its platform. It could be argued that its transition to a booking platform puts an even greater emphasis on the validity of the reviews.
While the company cannot predict or perhaps stem every scam that creative types are bound to drum up, it seems that a lot of the legwork is being done by authorities who are responsible for issuing fines and imposing legal sentences. Flagging listings which may be suspect is an interesting approach, though perhaps it would be best to simply de-list and ban properties who willingly defraud users.
It’s also important for TripAdvisor to be consistent. When we wrote about the record A$3 million Meriton fine for review fraud this year in Australia, we pointed out that Meriton still held its Travelers’ Choice Awards recognitions and Top 25 Hotels listings. At the time of writing this still appears to be the case. Putting red badges on and demoting smaller properties may be justified and proper, but it seems unbalanced while seeming to turn a blind eye to elaborate, fraudulent schemes developed by big-name brands.