One of Australia’s largest hotel groups, Meriton has been slapped with a $3 million fine for manipulating reviews on TripAdvisor.
The Federal Court decided the hotel group had also committed 13 breaches of the Australian Consumer Law across 13 properties in New South Wales and Queensland.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) pursued case was the first of it’s kind, signifying the power and sway of online review sites and leaving many speculating over the implications of the court’s decision.
The company, owned by Australia’s second-richest person, Harry Triguboff, were found to be “masking” customer’ email addresses in an attempt to prevent negative comments.
The court case was the result of an ABC investigation into the matter back in 2015 which was picked up by the ACCC.
If staff suspected guests would write a bad review, they would tamper with that customer’s email address before passing it onto TripAdvisor’s “review express” service which allows accommodation providers to pass on customer details to TripAdvisor so they could prompt them to write a review.
“This conduct by Meriton reduced the number of negative reviews of Meriton’s properties that were posted on the pages of the TripAdvisor website .. with the effect of improving the relative number of favourable reviews,” Justice Mark Moshinsky said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
The company’s staff will also have to undertake compliance training at the company’s expense for a three-year period.
“Manipulating these reviews is misleading to potential customers, who deserve the full picture when making a booking decision,” said ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court.
“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 also said the maximum penalty that could have been imposed was $14 million, with the ACCC submitting that the company should pay much higher than $3 million, but Meriton argued it should be limited to a “couple of hundred thousand dollars”.
Travel Weekly has contacted Meriton for comment.