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A TripAdvisor reviewer has been sentenced to nine months in prison in a landmark fraud ruling by an Italian court.
The owner of Promo Salento was convicted of selling fake reviews to hundreds of hospitality businesses across Italy in order to raise their profile on the website. He was also ordered to pay €8,000 (£7,100).
The court in Lecce said writing fake reviews under a false identity was a crime under Italian law.
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TripAdvisor's own investigation began in 2015 when business owners forwarded it letters they had received from Promo Salento offering to write fake reviews for a fee, in order to boost the companies' profiles on the site. TripAdvisor staff identified and blocked more than 1,000 attempts by Promo Salento to post reviews.
"The police investigation into Promo Salento delivered enough evidence of criminal conduct to send the case to court," the US company said in a statement.
"TripAdvisor formally joined the prosecution as a civil claimant, sharing evidence from our own investigations and providing support from our Italian legal counsel."
This is the first time a paid-review fraud has resulted in a jail sentence, although in many jurisdictions deliberately misleading consumers through unfair or misleading marketing can lead to fines or the companies being shut down.
There have been cases (in connection with both TripAdvisor and other review sites) where damages have been awarded to companies that have had negative paid fake reviews posted about them; and instances of practices aiming to withhold negative reviews, resulting in hotels or travel companies facing fines.
Brad Young, TripAdvisor's vice-president and associate general counsel, said the court's decision was a pivotal ruling for the internet.
"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."
Pascal Lamy, the chairman of the World Committee on Tourism Ethics, said: "Online reviews play a major role in tourism and consumer purchasing decisions, but it's important everyone plays by the rules."
Recent figures from TripAdvisor show the site has more than 500 million reviews and opinions of seven million properties, restaurants and attractions. The company faces growing pressure to tackle fake reviews and has come under fire in the past for not doing enough to prevent them, from the Italian Competition Authority, among others.
The site now employs a team of in-house investigators working to catch paid-review companies, and uses "advanced tracking technology" to analyse hundreds of pieces of information, including device location and other unusual patterns that might indicate a review is biased or fake. The site is also working with enforcement authorities including the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the US Federal Trade Commission, which could mean changes to sentencing around review fraud.
According to the European commission, 82% of people read consumer reviews before shopping, with estimates suggesting that between 1-16% of reviews are fake. The shift in consumer behaviour has resulted in advice from organisations such as the World Committee on Tourism Ethics, which published guidelines on the responsible use and misuse of ratings and review on digital platforms last year.
"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," said Lamy.
With reviews playing an ever more significant role in tourism, TripAdvisor is asking consumers and business owners who are approached by paid-review companies not to engage with them and report them on its website. The Competition and Markets Authority also welcomes any information around fake reviews (gov.uk).
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