How the Internet is fighting back against fake business reviews

How the Internet is fighting back against fake business reviews

August 26, 2018

In April 2017 a London lifestyle and food writer, Oobah Butler, set out to see if he could reach TripAdvisor’s No. 1 ranking with a restaurant that doesn’t exist as he thought there was something fishy with TripAdvisor when “restaurant owners would pay me £10 and I’d write a positive review of their place, despite never eating there.”

By November 2017 the non-existent restaurant reached No. 1.

And thus the exclamation marks on the problem with online reviews. Good reviews can help businesses, bad reviews can destroy them, and fake ones taint the review process to the point that they become worthless one way or the other.

But slowly and surely the Internet is fighting back.

It actually started back in April 2015 when Amazon sued several Web “entrepreneurs” whom it accused of offering fake reviews for sale. By October of that year the online retailer took a major step in its legal fight to cleanse itself of bogus reviews—suing 1,114 John Doe reviewers who sold their reviews on the Website Fiverr. By January 2016 they then sued three of its sellers for using sock puppet accounts to post fake reviews about their products.

Ever since then Amazon has been aggressively pursuing reviewers it does not consider genuine, often using lawsuits to discourage the buying and selling of reviews.

And this week a landmark event took place in Italy in the fight against fake online review and the Website TripAdvisor commended the action.

A pivotal legal ruling in Italy saw a persistent online review fraudster sentenced to jail.

In one of the first legal cases of its kind, the Criminal Court of Lecce ruled that writing fake reviews using a false identity is criminal conduct under Italian criminal law. The owner of PromoSalento, which sold fake review packages to hospitality businesses in Italy, was sentenced to 9 months in prison and ordered to pay approximately €8,000 ($9,280 US) in costs and damages.

Now that precedence has been set, it is expected that similar legal action will be taken against violators in other countries including the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.

Paid review fraud – when companies or individuals “sell” fake reviews to business owners – is a violation of the law in many jurisdictions, but this is one of the first cases of enforcement resulting in a criminal conviction.

The investigation

TripAdvisor supported the prosecution of PromoSalento as a civil claimant by sharing evidence from its in-house fraud investigations and providing support from its Italian legal counsel. See the link for more information on the TripAdvisor paid reviews in-house investigation into PromoSalento.

TripAdvisor welcomes the opportunity to work with enforcement authorities, including the UK Competition and Markets Authority and the US Federal Trade Commission, to share information and support their efforts to tackle online fake reviews.

Landmark ruling for the Internet

Brad Young, VP, associate general counsel, TripAdvisor, said: “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.

“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.

Industry collaboration has an important role

Pascal Lamy, chairman, World Committee on Tourism Ethics, UNWTO, added: “Online reviews play a major role in tourism and consumer purchasing decisions, but it’s important everyone plays by the rules. Fake reviews clearly contravene the World Committee on Tourism Ethics guidelines, which we published last year to guide the responsible use of ratings and reviews on digital platforms.

“The recommendations were developed in collaboration with TripAdvisor, Minube and Yelp and we know that industry collaboration has an important role to play in tackling review fraud.”

Anyone approached or contacted by companies or individuals offering fake reviews should not engage with them but share that information with the Websites being targeted, whether TripAdvisor, Yelp, Amazon, eBay or any other site. Complaints made to the Content Integrity teams of these various companies will be investigated.

Want to learn more? Read this article: How to prevent the Internet from killing your business.