Anyone can be a product expert or a restaurant critic on sites like Amazon and Yelp. But one individual is paying the ultimate price for fake expertise on a popular travel site. In one of the first legal cases of its kind, the Criminal Court of Lecce in Italy 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 nine months in prison and ordered to pay approximately 8,000 euros in costs and damages.
TripAdvisor, the American travel and restaurant website company, first began investigating PromoSalento in 2015 after it was contacted by several Italian business, which had been offered paid reviews. The company, over the course of its investigation with technical teams, identified and blocked/removed more than 1,000 attempts by PromoSalento to submit fake reviews on the platform for hundreds of properties.
Reviews—good or bad—can determine the sequence in which a company appears on a webpage in search query results. Google and other search engines have long relied on reviews to determine rank on a page. With the evolution of blogging, companies realised the importance of getting their word out on blogs. Some of them sponsor giveaways, some buy direct ads and some sponsor paid reviews. Paid reviews are effective because each review will presumably stay on the web as long as that website exists. For an advertiser, that’s very good. The popularity of online review sites means they are increasingly relied on by both businesses and their customers, with the UK government’s Competition and Markets Authority estimating that such reviews potentially influence £23 billion of UK customer spending every year.
But paid review fraud—when companies or individuals ‘sell’ fake reviews to business owners—is a violation of law in many jurisdictions and attracts punishment and fine. The Italian case is one of the first cases of enforcement resulting in criminal conviction. Online endorsements and testimonials can’t be purposely misleading, plus any relationship or connection between a company and reviewer must be disclosed. Additionally, paid reviewers and endorsers can’t publish fake or unfounded claims.
Posting fake reviews online is against the law. An individual cannot be paid to post a review even if it is the truth, unless the paid endorsement is clearly stated and understood.
Reviews must be based on authentic, real-life experiences. In 2005, the European Union enacted legislation, known as the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, holding businesses accountable for misleading advertising. TripAdvisor, which tackles online review fraud seriously, had employed advanced tracking technology and a dedicated team of investigators to catch paid review companies and prevent them from operating on the site.
The issue of fake reviews isn’t just restricted to travel sites. Several instances of fake reviews on Yelp and Amazon have also come to the light. According to reports, as many as one in four reviews on Yelp are fake, biased or considered by the review site to be unhelpful rants and raves. Amazon, as per reports, has sued over 1,000 sellers over false reviews. And, in order for these sites to retain an air of credibility, they do make efforts to crack down on paid and fake reviews. Reviews are a buyer’s best chance to navigate this dizzying crowded market and a seller’s chance to stand out from the crowd. And many are ready to pay and buy the reviews to stand out in the marketplace. While the law will take its course, a user should also use his/her own discretion.
The bottomline remains that a customer should ignore the one-star and five-star ratings and look at reviews in the middle. That’s where most of the real reviews are going to be.