In the internet age, a hotel or restaurant can live or die by its TripAdvisor reviews. That’s why the site has fought against the practice of paying for fake reviews for years.
This week, the company went even further by getting the Italian justice system on its side. A “persistent online review fraudster” was sentenced to nine months in prison for operating a company called PromoSalento, which sold fake reviews to hotels. The man was also issued a fine of €8,000, or $9,300.
In a ruling that TripAdvisor hopes will set a precedent, the case marks one of the first times that a person has been sent to jail for selling fraudulent online reviews. In a statement, TripAdvisor called the case 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,” said a member of TripAdvisor’s legal team. “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.”
PromoSalento’s tactics were first flagged to TripAdvisor in 2015 by Italian businesses who received promotional emails regarding its services. Using technology to analyze IP addresses, browser types, and other digital clues, the company was “able to see a trail of digital and behavioral ‘breadcrumbs.'” PromoSalento was notified, but didn’t stop. Then, when the Italian Postal and Communications Police began its own investigation, TripAdvisor joined the prosecution as a civil claimant and shared evidence to bolster the case.
Though fake reviews have dogged the company for years—gonzo journalist Oobah Butler pulled a journalistic stunt in which he managed to get a fake restaurant to appear as London’s top-rated restaurant on the site last year—it maintains that the vast majority of reviews on the site are genuine. In its statement, TripAdvisor touted its “content integrity team,” who are devoted to collecting tips and investigating cases of fraud as part of its commitment to rooting out the practice.