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Business fined for manipulating online reviews

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has fined Meriton Property Services Ltd, trading as Meriton Serviced Apartments, $3 million for manipulating TripAdvisor reviews in breach of the Australian Consumer Law.

In November 2017, the Federal Court found that Meriton had engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct and conduct liable to mislead the public by ‘masking’ email addresses to prevent certain guests from receiving TripAdvisor’s Review Express prompt email.

Accommodation providers that participate in TripAdvisor’s Review Express process typically provide email addresses of recent customers to the review site, which then emails the customers, prompting them to submit a review of their recent experience with that business.

According to TripAdvisor, accommodation providers that regularly use the Review Express service see an increase in reviews for their properties of 28 to 33 per cent.

However, Meriton sought to prevent guests who it suspected would leave a negative review from receiving the prompt emails by inserting additional letters into the email addresses it provided to TripAdvisor, so that the prompt email never reached the guest, or not sending guest email addresses to TripAdvisor.

“Meriton’s management directed staff to engage in ‘masking’ to stop potentially negative reviews from appearing on TripAdvisor. This gave the impression Meriton accommodation was of a higher standard than otherwise may have been the case,” ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court said.

“People often make purchasing decisions for accommodation based on the rankings and reviews they read on third party sites like TripAdvisor. Manipulating these reviews is misleading to potential customers, who deserve the full picture when making a booking decision.

“This case sends a strong message that businesses can expect ACCC enforcement action if they’re caught manipulating feedback on third party review websites,” Court said.

During the relevant period, Meriton offered serviced apartment accommodation in at least 13 properties in NSW and Queensland.

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