As more and more travellers turn to online booking sites for their accommodation needs, it’s opening up a whole new murky area for consumer law, experts say.
Case in point: A woman in New South Wales became the centre of a social media storm this week when she said she had been charged a $50 fee for leaving a negative review on a booking website.
She shared her experience online, after she said she tried sorting it out with the business owners.
Sharon Graham says she left a “fair review” on Booking.com after staying at the Mollymook Ocean View Motel, according to ABC.
The motel owners say her review is defamatory, and followed her up with a $50 charge after her review was posted – itemised in an invoice as “Social media bookings false review will be refunded if removed within 24 hours”.
The law says, it’s tricky.
A grey area for consumers
Katherine Temple from the Consumer Action Law Centre said she’d never seen a case like this before.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to see other businesses do this,” Ms Temple, the centre’s director of policy and campaigns, told The New Daily.
Law lecturer Mark Giancaspro said he’d heard of similar cases overseas, but not in Australia.
Dr Giancaspro told The New Daily of a case in England, where a hotel was notifying booking customers via email that if they left a bad review, they would be charged $100.
“So there is a precedent of sorts, but as a consumer I’d be pretty annoyed,” said Dr Giancaspro, of Adelaide Law School.
He said that if Mollymook Ocean View Motel had included in its terms and conditions that it could charge for negative reviews, it could have a sturdier leg to stand on.
But as for the invoice wording, saying the fee would be revoked if the review disappeared: “I don’t like to use the word blackmail, but …” Dr Giancaspro said.
Dr Giancaspro predicted we can expect to see more disputes and sneaky charges between guests, businesses and third-party booking platforms as the sector continues its growth.
And it can go both ways.
“Consumers need to be careful as well. You can’t go too far (with your review) or you enter possible defamation,” Dr Giancaspro said, clarifying that a business can still be defamed if it has 10 or fewer employees.
- Related: How to spot a fake online review
He said clarity was needed to determine how situations like this affected consumer law.
Then, the public needed to be educated about what their rights are.
“Consumers need to continue to give their honest opinions – it’s what keeps the marketplace fair,” Dr Giancaspro said.
What if it happens to me?
Ms Temple said any consumers who found themselves in a similar situation should contact their bank to start a charge-back process.
Then, she said, it was important to get in touch with the business and if a resolution wasn’t reached, to contact the relevant state’s consumer body.
Dr Giancaspro said consumers shouldn’t be put off by what appears to be a one-off horror story.
“Don’t let this deter you from booking through these sites … but they will try and pushing you about (because) as a consumer you do have rights, very strong rights,” he said.
And as for the Mollymook?
The business owners, Rachelle and Graham Fulton, told the Illawarra Mercury on Tuesday afternoon that they’d been forced to close up temporarily in response to the backlash.
“I have to reply to a lot of reviews and that takes time,” Ms Fulton told the Mercury, of the $50 charge.
“That money is a damage bond – I can charge for damage to our motel and for administration.”