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Owner of company that wrote fake TripAdvisor reviews may be first to get jail time

Owner of company that wrote fake TripAdvisor reviews may be first to get jail time
The headquarters of TripAdvisor in Needham, Mass. The owner of an Italian company was sentenced to jail for writing fake hotel reviews on TripAdvisor. (CJ Gunther / EPA/Shutterstock)

TripAdvisor, one of the world’s biggest travel review sites, wants the world to know that it won’t turn a blind eye to fake reviews.

To get that point across, the Needham, Mass.-based site commended the nine-month jail sentence and $9,300 fine imposed on the owner of an Italian company who provided hotel and restaurant reviews for a fee.

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The jail sentence, imposed by a court in the city of Lecce in southern Italy, may be the first for anyone caught writing fake online reviews. The owner’s name was not released because of E.U. privacy rules.

TripAdvisor laid out in great detail last week how the company spent several years investigating the company — PromoSalento — and turned over the evidence to Italian prosecutors.

"We see this as a landmark ruling for the Internet,” said Brad Young, vice president and associate general counsel for TripAdvisor, in a statement. “Writing fake reviews has always been fraud, but this is the first time we've seen someone sent to jail as a result."

When TripAdvisor’s digital investigators identified the reviews as coming from PromoSalento, the site either blocked, removed or demoted the reviews in the site’s ranking. For the fake reviews that continued to appear, TripAdvisor said it posted a “red badge” on the listing page of the business being reviewed, indicating that the business was trying to manipulate its reviews.

The prosecution comes four years after the Italian Competition Authority, a nongovernmental watchdog group, fined TripAdvisor for failing to warn users that some reviews may be fake. TripAdvisor appealed the fine and convinced an Italian court to overturn the penalty.

“We appealed the ICA’s original ruling as we believed that it was unreasonable and we strongly disagreed with its findings,” TripAdvisor said in a statement at the time.

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