Owner of Fake TripAdvisor Review Company Sentenced to Jail
Once upon a time there was a TED talk with the title “The Currency of the New Economy is Trust.”
The thesis was that technology allows consumers to trust others in ways they never did before – getting into strangers’ Uber cars, staying in strangers’ spare Airbnb bedrooms, buying things from strangers on eBay, etc.
Reviews from other consumers are what drive that trust – and a lot of people read them.
As the New York Times notes,
In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 82 percent of American adults say they sometimes or always read online reviews for new purchases. And more than two-thirds of regular review readers believe that they’re “generally accurate.”
But can the reviews be trusted?
Probably not — for a lot of reasons.
For one thing, as Forbes notes,
Many customers feel they will be judged or face negative future consequences if they leave a negative review for a rental property, driver, or other part of the sharing economy. As a result, they tend to over-embellish the positive aspects of their experience and hide or barely acknowledge the negative aspects.
Also, the tiny subset of people (about 1.5%) who bother to leave reviews don’t represent the average consumer.
People who write online reviews, according to the Times,
are more likely to buy things in unusual sizes, make returns, be married, have more children, be younger and less wealthy, and have graduate degrees than the average consumer.
Also, of course, both positive and negative reviews can be faked.
As the Washington Post notes, although Amazon claims that 99% of the product reviews on its site are legitimate (by real consumers who weren’t paid to write them), the Post found that
for some popular product categories, such as Bluetooth headphones and speakers, the vast majority of reviews appear to violate Amazon’s prohibition on paid reviews. Such reviews have certain characteristics, such as repetitive wording that people probably cut and paste in.
Sellers often “recruit” reviewers on Facebook, in exchange for money, Amazon gift cards, or other forms of compensation.
Amazon only banned paying for reviews a year and a half ago, according to the Post.
Fighting Review Fraud
As the LA Times reports, TripAdvisor has been active in fighting review fraud on its site.
According to The Guardian, TripAdvisor says it’s stopped 60 paid review companies since 2015.
In 2015, TripAdvisor learned that an Italian company called PromoSalento was offering to write fake reviews for hospitality businesses.
TripAdvisor punished some users of the service by placing a red badge on their listing pages, warning travelers that the business had been trying to manipulate reviews.
TripAdvisor also joined as a civil claimant in a criminal prosecution of the Italian company.
The president of the fake review company was sentenced to nine months in jail and a €8,000
fine (equivalent to $9,300) for using a fake identity to commit fraud.
This is believed to be the first time that a perpetrator has actually gone to jail for review fraud.