The owner of an online review company in Italy has been jailed for posting fake critiques on TripAdvisor on behalf of hospitality businesses in a landmark ruling by the criminal court of Lecce. PromoSalento’s owner was sentenced to nine months in prison and ordered to pay approximately €8,000 in costs and damages.
The court ruled that writing fake reviews and using a false identity is a crime under Italian law. TripAdvisor helped provide evidence from an in-house fraud investigation against PromoSalento, which sells fake-review packages to hospitality firms in Italy.
TripAdvisor’s own investigation began in 2015, when business owners forwarded it letters they had received from PromoSalento offering to write fake reviews for a fee, in order to boost the companies’ profiles on the site.
This is the first time a paid-review fraud has resulted in a jail sentence, although, in many jurisdictions, deliberately misleading consumers through unfair or misleading marketing can lead to fines or the companies being shut down.
There have been cases in connection with both TripAdvisor and other review sites where damages have been awarded to companies that have had negative paid fake reviews posted about them, and instances of practices aiming towards withholding negative reviews, resulting in hotels or travel companies facing fines.
“We see this as a landmark ruling for the internet. 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 and 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, which is why we’re eager to collaborate with regulators and law enforcement authorities to support their prosecutions.”
Recent figures from TripAdvisor show the site has more than 500 million reviews and opinions on seven million properties, restaurants and attractions. The company faces growing pressure to tackle fake reviews and has come under fire in the past for not doing enough to prevent them.
The site now employs a team of in-house investigators working to catch paid-review companies, and uses “advanced tracking technology” to analyse hundreds of pieces of information, including location of devices and unusual patterns that might indicate a review is biased or fake.
The site is also working with enforcement authorities including the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the US Federal Trade Commission, which could mean changes to sentencing around review fraud.
With reviews playing an ever more significant role in tourism, TripAdvisor is asking consumers and business owners who are approached by paid-review companies not to engage with them and report them on its website. – Guardian