The Federal Court today ordered serviced apartments accommodation provider Meriton Property Services Pty Ltd, trading as ‘Meriton Serviced Apartments’, to pay penalties of $3 million for manipulating TripAdvisor reviews, in breach of the Australian Consumer Law.
In November 2017, the Federal Court found that Meriton engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct and conduct liable to mislead the public by implementing a practice of ‘masking’ email addresses. Masking prevented guests Meriton suspected would give negative reviews from receiving TripAdvisor’s ‘Review Express’ prompt email.
“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,” Ms Court said.
TripAdvisor offers a service called ‘Review Express’. Participating accommodation providers provide TripAdvisor with email addresses of recent customers who have consented to their details being passed on. TripAdvisor then emails the customers, prompting them to submit a review of their recent experience with that business.
Meriton’s ‘masking’ process worked by:
- inserting additional letters into guests’ email addresses provided to TripAdvisor so that the prompt email never reached the guest, or
- not sending guest email addresses to TripAdvisor.
Meriton offers accommodation under the brand Meriton Serviced Apartments. During the relevant period, Meriton offered serviced apartment accommodation in at least 13 properties in NSW and Queensland. Meriton is part of the Meriton Group of companies.
TripAdvisor states that accommodation providers that regularly use the ‘Review Express’ service see an increase in TripAdvisor reviews for their properties of 28 to 33 per cent.