Investigations Spotlight: Jail Time for Review Fraud
In the second in a series of behind-the-scenes articles highlighting the vital work of our review fraud investigators, we delve into an Italian investigation that delivered some groundbreaking results...
The buying or selling of fake reviews — known as paid review fraud — is not only dishonest, but also illegal in many countries. Fortunately, because of our highly evolved detection and deterrent techniques, the amount of fraud attempted on TripAdvisor is extremely small. We take any attempts at review fraud very seriously, and with over 15 years’ experience, we are the industry leaders at catching it.
Back in 2015, our dedicated team of fraud investigators identified a new illegal business in Italy called PromoSalento* that was offering to write fake reviews for hospitality businesses to boost their profile on TripAdvisor. Several Italian businesses forwarded the emails to us, which kick-started an investigation that would ultimately see the person behind PromoSalento sent to jail!
Here is how we did it:
Step #1: Identify The Perpetrator
The first step of the investigation was to confirm the identity of the person behind the emails as well as other individuals we suspected were involved with the PromoSalento business. Through research and detection work, our investigators gathered a variety of details on the people involved, including email addresses, residential addresses and personal connections.
Step #2: Gather The Evidence and Block Reviews
The next step was to establish that PromoSalento had not only advertised fake review services, but had actually attempted to submit fake reviews to our site. This is an important step because companies or individuals sometimes claim they can submit fake reviews or influence our site, only for them to disappear with the money once a business has signed up to their ‘services.’
Our investigators applied advanced digital forensics to identify and analyze links between PromoSalento and attempted submissions to our site. Over the course of our investigation, our technical analysis identified and then either blocked or removed more than 1,000 attempts by PromoSalento to submit reviews to the TripAdvisor site on hundreds of different properties.
PromoSalento attempted to avoid our scrutiny by regularly changing their usernames and email addresses, but our fraud detection processes use a suite of advanced technologies to evaluate hundreds of review attributes such as IP addresses, browser types and even the screen resolution of a reviewer’s device. Based on that analysis, we were able to see a trail of digital and behavioral ‘breadcrumbs’ that led our team straight back to PromoSalento.
Step #3: Penalize Properties
The next step was to connect this activity to the businesses paying PromoSalento to write fake reviews on their behalf. We believe those who do not play by the rules should be penalized and we have strong penalties in place for businesses that try to manipulate our system.
Our investigators gathered a detailed collection of evidence linking several hundred businesses to fake reviews submitted by PromoSalento. The team then notified these businesses and applied penalties that demoted their positions in our rankings. A ranking penalty — which reduces a business’s position within the TripAdvisor Popularity Ranking — is often the first penalty we apply in cases like this.
For most of the businesses we caught in connection with PromoSalento, our ranking penalties were enough to stop fraud in its tracks. But where we saw suspicious activity continue, the next step was to issue a red badge, which is a notice displayed on a business’s TripAdvisor listing page warning travelers that the business has been trying to manipulate reviews. The notice outlines the type of fraud we have spotted.
We always seek to engage with businesses before a red badge is applied, and in this case, several businesses were willing to share information to support TripAdvisor’s investigations. This allowed us to gather even more evidence against PromoSalento, including confirmation of payments, bank transactions and service receipts.
Step #4: Shut The Fraudsters Down
Armed with our body of evidence, we worked with our Legal team to put a stop to PromoSalento’s activities. In the majority of cases, this is where the story successfully concludes — the paid review company realizes we are onto them, our systems make their job too difficult, and their business model is no longer viable. In fact, since 2015, we have stopped the activity of more than 60 different paid review companies worldwide.
Unfortunately, a small number of offenders persist, either on TripAdvisor or by moving on to other reviews sites with less sophisticated fraud protections. In the most persistent cases, we work with law enforcement and regulatory agencies around the world to share our evidence and encourage them to prosecute these serial offenders.
In the case of PromoSalento, the Italian Postal and Communications Police were already on to them.
Step #5: Prosecution
In parallel to our investigation, a restaurateur from Trieste who had received advertising emails from PromoSalento brought the case to the Italian Postal and Communications Police who also began to investigate. Business owners are valuable partners in the fight against paid review fraud and this case shows the important role they can play.
The police investigation into PromoSalento delivered enough evidence of criminal conduct to send the case to court. TripAdvisor formally joined the prosecution as a civil claimant, sharing evidence from our own investigations and providing support from our Italian legal counsel.
Together this resulted in one of the first legal cases of its kind.
In June 2018, the Criminal Court of Lecce found the owner of PromoSalento guilty of criminal conduct on the grounds of using a fake identity to commit fraud. He was sentenced to 9 months in prison and ordered to pay approximately 8,000 Euros in costs and damages.
We see this as a landmark ruling for the Internet. Writing fake reviews on TripAdvisor has always been a violation of the law in many jurisdictions, for instance falling under the EU Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, as well as national laws relating to consumer protection, fraud and false advertising. However, this is the first time we have seen the laws being enforced to the point of securing a criminal conviction. The judgment makes clear that writing fake reviews constitutes criminal conduct under laws relating to impersonation fraud.
Step #6: Working Together To Stop Paid Review Fraud
At TripAdvisor, we fight paid review fraud aggressively and are effective at catching it. But we can only do so much alone. We welcome more opportunities to work with hospitality businesses, consumer rights organizations, regulators and law enforcement agencies to prosecute the most persistent paid review fraudsters. By working together, we can be even more effective in shutting down these businesses.
Step #7: What You Can Do To Help
If you have been approached by someone offering reviews for cash, please tell us about it. Do not engage with paid review companies as they can harm your business. You can share any information you may have on these companies or individuals by contacting our team directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*PromoSalento was the brand name fraudulently used to sell fake reviews to hospitality businesses. It is not a genuine business and is no longer operating given the conviction of the person behind it. It has no connection to any unrelated businesses with the same name.
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Last Updated: September 11, 2018