Meriton Property Services has been fined $3 million by the Federal Court for failing to let guests write honest TripAdvisor reviews.
The Group, owned by billionaire Harry Triguboff, was found guilty in November of having breached Australian Consumer Law and misrepresented online reviews by failing to offer guests the opportunity to write first-hand about their accommodation experiences.
The penalty was handed down on Tuesday following the court’s ruling that the Meriton Serviced Apartments brand engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct.
It was found that from November 2014 to October 2015, Meriton took steps to prevent guests it suspected would give an unfavourable review from receiving TripAdvisor’s Review Express prompt email.
The masking practice stopped guests from sharing views with other travellers who may have been considering booking Meriton properties across Sydney, Brisbane or the Gold Coast.
Meriton denied the allegation, but the court found the process meant guests were unable to post potentially negative reviews through the email invitation service.
Review Express works through accommodation providers passing on the email addresses of recent stayers who have agreed to receive an email inviting them to post a review.
The masking process occurred when Meriton added extra characters to email addresses to ensure the communication was not received, or failed to provide the addresses to TripAdvisor.
According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Meriton used masking at times when guests stayed at one of its hotels during periods when services such as hot water systems and lifts failed, in an attempt to ensure those guests would not receive a Review Express email.
“We allege that Meriton’s conduct was a deliberate practice, undertaken at the direction of Meriton’s senior management, aimed at minimising the number of negative reviews,” said ACCC commissioner Sarah Court.
“In reducing the chances of a customer posting a negative review, Meriton created a created a more positive or favourable impression of the quality or amenity of the Meriton properties on the TripAdvisor website.
“Many consumers base their purchasing decisions on reviews they get through sites like TripAdvisor.
It’s therefore vital the reviews on these review sites are not manipulated and accurately reflect all customers’ opinions – the good and the bad.”
Ms Court said the case sent a strong message that businesses could expect ACCC enforcement action if they’re caught manipulating feedback on review websites.
Meriton was also ordered to establish a compliance and education program for staff to adhere to provisions of the Australian Consumer Law.
According to TripAdvisor, accommodation providers that regularly use Review Express see an uplift of 28 to 33 percent in reviews for their properties.