When Fraud or Extortion Happens to Innkeepers and TripAdvisor is Used as the Weapon

Two times this week I have been contacted by innkeepers who were threatened or potentially threatened with fraudulent reviews to extort money or to inflict damage.

One innkeeper wrote to me the following:

I am having job performance issues with my college student – he perceives that the problem is me and not his job performance.  He relayed to another staff member (how do they think I won’t find out?) that his friends said he should go on TripAdvisor and pretend to write a review as a guest and make a comment that they liked everything about the inn, except how the owner treated her employees.

Another innkeeper told me that one of his guests stayed for a few nights and said she suffered several bed bug bites during her stay.  To make a long story short, they had the inn inspected for evidence of bed bugs (and they do wrap their mattresses), and there was no evidence.  The guest mentioned the possibility of writing a review on TripAdvisor about it, before she requested a full refund for her stay.  The innkeeper naturally doesn’t want to give in (and does not plan to).

We’ve known for a long time that people have been using TripAdvisor as a weapon in certain circumstances.  The most common one I’ve heard about is when guests want to cancel towards the last minute, but they don’t want to pay the agreed-upon cancellation fee.  If the innkeeper holds true to the policy, the guests get upset and threaten a negative review on TripAdvisor if they don’t get their deposit back.  This is despicable and unscrupulous in my humble opinion, but it happens.  Because the system does not verify the veracity of this guest (Did he actually make a reservation?  Did he stay there?  Who knows?), and because reviewers can remain anonymous, reviewers have the upper hand in these unfortunate situations – a true weakness in today’s online review systems.  When I’ve told stories like this to my contacts at TripAdvisor in the past, they seem genuine in their desire to fight fraud.  After all, their system becomes less valuable as more fraud gets into the database of reviews.  They have automated tools that can detect some of it, but the rest is left to human interpretation of the event as explained by the reviewer and rebutted by the innkeeper.

But what can one do if there is an imminent case of fraud and the innkeeper is aware of this?  Report it.  Use TripAdvisor’s online communication tool for owners to let them know what is happening.  That way, if the fraudulent review subsequently shows up, innkeepers have at least already alerted TripAdvisor.  Hopefully, this alert will serve as evidence in the dispute, if a dispute arises.
TripAdvisor staff has told me that if someone threatens to write a fraudulent review or one that is supposed to extort money out of the innkeeper, that you should try to let them know of this threat.  Use TripAdvisor’s online system to report this in advance.  Here is the URL for reporting fraud: http://www.tripadvisor.com/help/how_can_owners_alert_ta_to_potential_fraud

Follow the links until you get to the “Manage your listing” tab (upper right) on the Owner’s Center page for your inn.  Under that tab, there is a “Manage reviews” section, and under that section is a link for “Report problem with review.”  When you click on that link, you are asked to register as the owner.  If you can log in with your TripAdvisor username and password, you should be able to get to an online form to let TripAdvisor know what’s happening.

Be sure to explain all the details you have at your disposal to prepare for the unscrupulous reviewer.  There is no guarantee that you will win your case, but no innkeeper should wilt or sit idly by when extortion or fraud is happening.

Author: Jay Karen

Jay is the President & CEO of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International.

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