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Rubber-glove time: Italy to probe TripAdvisor over 'fake reviews'

Second investigation opened into Expedia, Booking.com's deals with hotels

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Italy’s competition regulator has launched two investigations into holiday websites just ahead of the summer in the wake of complaints from both tourists and industry figures.

The antitrust watchdog said it would be looking into TripAdvisor to see if the holiday review and booking site was taking the right steps to ensure that no fake reviews were being posted. In a separate probe of Expedia and Booking.com, the regulator said that it was assessing whether the sites’ deals with hotels were stopping customers from getting a better price elsewhere.

TripAdvisor has been criticised for a lack of oversight of its comments and opinions, with users worried that hotels are talking themselves up and hotels and restaurants concerned that competitors can leave caustic critiques in an attempt to steal customers.

Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato (AGCM) said in a statement on its website that it had received complaints about TripAdvisor from both users of the site and hotel and restaurant owners. In a bulletin explaining the investigation, it said that TripAdvisor claims to offer reliable advice from real travellers, but it was difficult for users to be sure of that.

“This circumstance is likely to harm not only the tourist facilities reviewed negatively, but especially consumers who choose a travel destination on the basis of false positive reviews and find onsite facilities totally inadequate compared to their expectations,” the authority said (with help from Google Translate).

AGCM also said that there wasn’t a clear enough difference between reviews left by tourists and the profiles that the hotels and restaurants had written themselves and paid the website to post.

TripAdvisor said in an emailed statement that it “fights fraud aggressively” and was confident in its processes.

“Every single review goes through our tracking system, which maps the how, what, where and when of each review. This system employs sophisticated algorithms to spot patterns of activity, using best practices from a variety of industries,” spokesperson James Kay said.

“We back that up with a team of over 200 content specialists, who manually investigate every review flagged for inspection by our systems, as well as any reports we receive from owners or travellers. We also have strong penalties in place to deter fraudsters and the very nature of our site allows for any inaccuracies to be quickly rectified.

“Nothing is more important to us than ensuring travellers gain an accurate and useful picture of the businesses and destinations they research on TripAdvisor. Unfortunately every major service industry has to confront the challenge of fraud, but ultimately, if people didn’t find the reviews on our site helpful and accurate they wouldn’t keep coming back,” he added.

Meanwhile, the AGCM has also started an investigation of Expedia and Booking.com to see whether their contracts with hotels include so-called “most favoured nation” clauses that forbid the hotels to offer better deals on other websites, even their own.

“In the Authority's view, use of these terms by the two major platforms on the market could significantly restrict competition both on the fees required for tourist accommodations and on the prices of hotel services, to the detriment, ultimately, of consumers,” it said in a statement.

The regulator said it would be aiming to finish its probe of the booking sites by the end of July next year. Neither Expedia nor Booking.com had returned a request for comment at the time of publication. ®

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