An investigation started by the TripAdvisor fraud team in 2015 has finally ended, resulting in a red badge for some of the companies caught up in the scam, and jail time and a fine for the person that sold the fake reviews. According to Slashdot, several companies began forwarding an advertisement to TripAdvisor by a man that said he would write reviews for companies to use on the platform in exchange for payment. As the person writing the reviews was soliciting to engage in a fraudulent activity, the reviews were against the terms of service of TripAdvisor at a minimum.
The person writing ads worked under the company name PromoSalento, from Italy. TripAdvisor outlined on their Blog, how they built a case against the company, that not only resulted in online punishments against companies using the service, but real-life penalties for the fake review writer as well in Italian court. The first step was piecing together the players, linking email addresses to each other, residential addresses, and any kind of connection they could find to associate companies suspected of using fraudulent reviews to PromoSalento.
They then established that PromoSalento had been advertising the sale of fake reviews. Once that fact was established, they began looking for evidence that they had tried to submit fake reviews, or alter site ratings in any way. Their forensic analysts eventually found over 1,000 attempts to submit reviews that bore the digital footprint of PromoSalento, to hundreds of properties listed on the site. They explained, in part, how they do this type of investigative work.
“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.”
A fake reviewer on @TripAdvisor has been sentenced to 9 months jail and 8000 Euros (Rs 6.8 lakh) fine.— Trak.in (@trakin) September 13, 2018
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They then penalized properties on-site that they could prove had reviews from PromoSalento. In some cases, a property’s rank was lowered. In other cases, a red badge was also added to the account if they determined continued suspicious activity, even after a ranking demotion took place. They then turned all of their evidence of the fraud over to Italian police, which included proof that the mail had been used to solicit businesses to buy fake reviews, incurring even more potential penalties for PromoSalento.
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. His sentence was set at nine months in jail, and came with a fine of about $9,300 USD. TripAdvisor said the case was a reminder that paid review fraud online, is still fraud offline, and it can incur penalties for those who participate in impersonation fraud.