In the first case of its kind, a man who sold his fake review services received a nine-month jail sentence.
An Italian business owner has become the first TripAdvisor review fraudster to be handed jail time after attempting to post more than 1,000 fake reviews about hundreds of different properties.
According to a detailed report released this week by TripAdvisor, in 2015, an Italian business called PromoSalento began offering to write fake reviews for hospitality businesses to help boost their TripAdvisor profile. After several Italian businesses alerted the company to the scam, it launched an investigation.
Around the same time, a Trieste, Italy-based restaurateur reported PromoSalento to Italian police authorities after being approached with a fake review offer. The police then launched a criminal investigation into the matter.
TripAdvisor joined forces with the prosecution team and this summer, the man behind the PromoSalento scheme (who was not named in the TripAdvisor report) was found guilty of criminal conduct on the grounds of using a fake identity to commit fraud, was sentenced to nine months in prison, and was ordered to pay approximately 8,000 euros (or US$9,353) in damages. He is currently in jail and PromoSalento is no longer in operation.
“This is the first case we’re aware of in which paid review fraud has led to a criminal conviction and jail time,” a TripAdvisor spokesperson told AFAR.
PromoSalento tried to avoid scrutiny by regularly changing user names and email addresses. Nevertheless, TripAdvisor was able to track those accounts back to PromoSalento.
After piecing the scheme together, TripAdvisor was also able to identify the businesses that had hired PromoSalento for its unsavory services and penalized them by dropping their popularity ranking, the traditional first step TripAdvisor institutes in cases such as this.
For businesses that continue to engage in fraudulent activity, TripAdvisor issues them a red badge, or a notice displayed on the business’s listing page advising travelers that the business has been trying to manipulate review.
“We always seek to engage with businesses before a red badge is applied, and in this case, several businesses were willing to share information to support TripAdvisor’s investigations. This allowed us to gather even more evidence against PromoSalento, including confirmation of payments, bank transactions and service receipts,” TripAdvisor stated in its report.
According to TripAdvisor, in the majority of cases its fraud prevention systems as well as the threat of legal action is usually enough to stop illegitimate paid review activities. The company reports that it has managed to halt the activity of more than 60 different paid review companies around the world since 2015.
TripAdvisor noted that there are many jurisdictions under which writing fake reviews can be seen as a violation of the law, including laws that govern consumer protection, fraud, and false advertising. For instance, the practice falls under the European Union’s unfair commercial practices directive.
The company hopes that the ruling will help deter fake reviewers. All TripAdvisor reviews must first go through the site’s tracking system before they are published, and any review flagged as suspicious, either by the tracking system or by the travel community, results in an in-house investigation. The company also recently launched an online information portal that shares articles and resources about how it moderates and protects its content and reviews. It encourages businesses that are approached by companies or individuals offering fake review services to contact TripAdvisor at firstname.lastname@example.org.