Australia’s largest apartment developer Meriton has been ordered to pay $3 million in penalties after manipulating TripAdvisor reviews.
The Federal Court on Tuesday found that Meriton Serviced Apartments engaged in “misleading or deceptive conduct” in breach of Australian consumer law.
ACCC commissioner Sarah Court said Meriton’s management directed staff to “mask” email addresses to stop potentially negative reviews about its apartments on travel website TripAdvisor.
It prevented any guests that Meriton suspected would write a negative review with complaints – such as no hot water or broken lifts – from receiving TripAdvisor’s email prompt to provide a review of their recent accommodation experience, she said.
“This gave the impression Meriton accommodation was of a higher standard than otherwise may have been the case,” Ms Court said in a statement.
“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.”
Meriton manipulated emails addresses by inserting additional letters so that the prompt emails never reached the customers. In other instances it failed to provide a guest email address to TripAdvisor entirely.
The court heard from an email dated 2014 in which one hotel manager wrote to a colleagues about a three-star review, stating: “It doesn’t look like they complained during their stay so this is why the booking wasn’t masked”, the ABC reported.
Accommodation providers that use TripAdvisor’s review service regularly have about a 30 per cent increase in reviews, according to the website.
A TripAdvisor spokeswoman told The New Daily that when allegations of suspicious activity were first identified in October 2015, TripAdvisor addressed the issues immediately.
“It is incredibly important to us that our site remains a useful and accurate source of information to travellers,” she said.
“We believe in the rights of the travel community to share their genuine experiences – both positive and negative – and it is incredibly important that we continue to be a valuable resource to the millions of people who use us each week to plan and book their travel.”
The ACCC said the case sent a strong message to businesses that they should expect court action if they chose to manipulate feedback on third-party review websites.
The New Daily has contacted Meriton for comment.