A report that is claimed to include tens of thousands of defamatory comments and misrepresentation on review site TripAdvisor has been presented to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
Online reputation management firm KwikChex.com, which has also presented its findings to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the USA, said it had highlighted examples of reviews posted on TripAdvisor that are racist and bigoted and contain accounts of sexual attacks, offensive language, drug taking, prostitution, and insults against named individuals.
Chris Emmins, co-founder of KwikChex, said the high volume of defamatory comments posted on TripAdvisor confirmed that the site had contravened its own guidelines on screening every review prior to posting and zero tolerance of fraudulent reviews.
"Either their claims of efficient screening are false - or they condone such behaviour on their site," he added. "TripAdvisor does not authenticate reviews as a matter of course - they do not even verify that the poster is a genuine customer of the business they are reviewing."
KwikChex also takes issues with TripAdvisor's claim that its 50 million reviews are from real travellers around the world.
"We would estimate that around 20 million of these are too old to be of real use to consumers - older than one year and some stretching back many years," said Emmins. "Many are completely irrelevant since the business reviewed is no longer trading."
KwikChex received more than 3,000 requests worldwide for assistance from business and consumers about review fraud. Around 30% of complaints have come from the UK.
In its reports to the ASA and FTC, the company cites misrepresentation, misleading statements and unlawful practices of advertising using reviews where no substantiation is available. It also intends to challenge the immunity TripAdvisor claims under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act by contending that the review site is acting as a publisher and creator of information.
Of further concern to KwikChex was the growing industry in fake review placement, with agencies offering writing skills and means of creating genuine-looking reviews, together with thousands of IP addresses to avoid detection by screening systems.
TripAdvisor said it had not been contacted directly by KwikChex regarding the allegations made to the ASA and FTC. In a statement it said: "We believe the legitimacy of our reviews and opinions from real travellers is a key reason why we enjoy tremendous user loyalty and growth.
The statement added that reviews are not removed due to their age, but more credence is given to recent reviews, with TripAdvisor's popularity index weighing newer reviews more heavily than older reviews.
"Reviews are screened prior to posting and we have proprietary tools in place to help detect fraudulent reviews. We also periodically confirm the legitimacy of review authors," it added.
TripAdvisor advised hotel and restaurant owners who believe they have been unfairly represented to contact the TripAdvisor Owners Centre or publicly respond online to a review.
"Attempts to manipulate the TripAdvisor system are rare, as the vast majority of businesses understand the tremendous risk to their reputation and their business if they attempt to post fraudulent information," the statement said. "We take serious steps to penalise businesses who are caught attempting to manipulate the system."
Examples of reviews cited by KwikChex as being fraudulent, manipulated and misrepresented
● Authors who admit to not visiting the restaurant or hotel in question One reviewer of a Sussex restaurant said he had heard the kitchens were filthy and wouldn't eat there for that reason. "This is not only defamatory, but it is also based on heresay, not factual evidence," said Emmins.
● KwikChex believes TripAdvisor's Popularity Index is unreliable - despite the review site's claim that its algoritithms decide the position of a business. A London pop-up restaurant that was set up for a couple of weeks made it to number 11, leapfrogging 8,451 other restaurants, with just nine reviews over two weeks.
● Claims of theft from staff at a five-star London hotel, despite there being no direct evidence that an item has been stolen from a bedroom as alleged by the reviewer.
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By Janet Harmer
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