Meriton Property Services has today been ordered by The Federal Court to pay a penalty of $3 million for breaching Australian Consumer Law by misrepresenting online reviews on TripAdvisor by failing to offer guests the opportunity to write first-hand reviews.

The penalty stems from a decision in November last year which found the Meriton Serviced Apartments brand engaged in a practice of ‘masking’ email addresses over an 11-month period from November 2014 to October 2015. This practice prevented guests from having the opportunity to share their first-hand account of their stay with other travellers who may have been considering booking their own stay at a Meriton property in Sydney, Brisbane or the Gold Coast.

While vigorously denied by Meriton at the time, the Court found the process employed by the company would prevent potentially aggrieved guests from posting a negative review through TripAdvisor’s ‘Review Express’ email invitation service.

“Meriton’s management directed staff to engage in ‘masking’ to stop potentially negative reviews from appearing on TripAdvisor. This gave the impression Meriton accommodation was of a higher standard than otherwise may have been the case,” said ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court.

“People often make purchasing decisions for accommodation based on the rankings and reviews they read on third party sites like TripAdvisor. Manipulating these reviews is misleading to potential customers, who deserve the full picture when making a booking decision.”

“This case sends a strong message that businesses can expect ACCC enforcement action if they’re caught manipulating feedback on third party review websites,” Ms Court said.

TripAdvisor’s ‘Review Express’ system works through participating accommodation providers providing it with the email addresses of guests who recently stay and agree to receiving an email inviting them to post a review. The masking process occurred through Meriton adding characters to email addresses to ensure they would not be received, or simply not providing them to TripAdvisor at all.

“We believe in the rights of the travel community to share their genuine experiences – both positive and negative – and it is incredibly important to us that our site remains a useful and accurate source of information to travellers. This is why we work with our business owners to understand the strict guidelines and policies they need to adhere to when they use our platform,” a spokesperson from TripAdvisor told HM.

“It is important to note that when allegations of suspicious activity in this particular case came to light in October 2015, TripAdvisor took action to investigate and self-regulate, ensuring that any issues identified were addressed immediately and to the satisfaction of TripAdvisor’s strict guidelines.”

HM has made contact with Meriton for comment regarding this decision.