As reported by The Morning Advertiser, a criminal court in Lecce in Puglia, Italy, ruled that writing fake reviews using a false identity is criminal conduct under Italian law in June 2018 – a landmark ruling convicting an individual of fraud for a practice known as “paid review fraud”.
According to Thomas Edwards of Fladgate: “Paid review fraud occurs when a business or establishment pays a company to post positive, but fake, reviews of their goods or services online. These supposedly genuine reviews then boost the rating of the business on the site.
“Paid review fraud has become increasingly common in the hotel and restaurant industry. As the influence of customer review sites such as TripAdvisor, Google reviews and Yelp has increased, so has the possibility of businesses taking advantage of fake reviews.”
Combating paid review fraud
While Edwards highlights that combating paid review fraud is largely dependent on review sites monitoring and tackling fraudulent reviewers, the volume of fake reviews can be problematic because hosting sites may struggle to distinguish fake from genuine.
He adds that some sites have employed more permanent measures to combat review fraud such as the introduction of warnings to alert a user that a venue has been benefiting from fake reviews. Moreover, businesses that continue posting fake reviews can face removal.
According to Edwards, the similarities between Italy and the UK mean that similar steps could be taken in the UK.
He said: “Italian law and UK law are not identical but it seems likely that there are enough similarities – particularly as much consumer protection law is EU driven, to make it likely that UK courts could come to the same conclusion if a clear enough case was prosecuted.
More enforcement action
“Now a precedent has been set, we are likely to see more enforcement action being taken against those who engage in paid review fraud. Many reviewing platforms are now working with the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to target fake reviewers, and businesses can always report fake review fraud to the CMA.
“In the first instance the enforcement may be as simple as issuing a notice against the offender, but the Italian court ruling does show that fake reviews are taken seriously, and could lead to prosecution.
“In UK law, the consumer protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 prohibits the posting of misleading information online with an intention to make a gain. The penalty on conviction in the UK is a fine and/or a prison sentence.”
Edwards argues that now a precedent has been set for prosecution, and with the CMA being more proactive in combating fake reviews, the UK’s hospitality sector is likely to see “serious action” in this area in the near future.