The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has commenced proceedings in the Federal Court against Meriton Property Services Pty Ltd, trading as ‘Meriton Serviced Apartments’ (Meriton).
The ACCC alleges that Meriton engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct in connection with the posting of reviews of its properties on the popular independent review site TripAdvisor. The ACCC alleges that from November 2014 to October 2015, Meriton took steps to prevent guests it suspected would give a negative review from receiving TripAdvisor’s ‘Review Express’ (effectively preventing such guests from easily posting a negative review on TripAdvisor).
According to the ACCC, senior management at Meriton deliberately tried to minimise negative reviews submitted to TripAdvisor from potentially disgruntled guests by directing staff at Meriton to provide incorrect email addresses (think ‘opps my hand just slipped and *accidently* hit the space ba’r) or failing to provide the email addresses all together.
Allegedly this rather elaborate scheme of trying to minimise negative reviews conveniently coincided with periods where the infrastructure or services at the relevant Meriton Apartments was less than ‘five-stars’ thanks to no hot water and out of action lifts. According to the ACCC, this practice of trying to minimise potentially harmful reviews was likely to create a more positive or favourable impression of the standard, quality or suitability of accommodation services provided by Meriton.
It is an interesting case because the conduct is quite different from traditional misleading and deceptive conduct breaches to date, such as organisations blatantly blasting fake testimonials or selectively editing reviews. In this case, Meriton was (apparently quite deliberately) trying to prevent a negative review from even happening in the first place by manufacturing a technical glitch.
The case is a timely reminder that the misleading and deceptive conduct under the Australian Consumer Law provisions are broad and that the ACCC is putting the microscope on the behaviour of businesses in the online space. In the end, businesses must consider the ‘overall impression’ they are giving consumers.
The case also underscores the importance of independent consumer review platforms in driving consumer choice. I for one am an avid user of TripAdvsor and methodically research before booking a trip. It’s delivered on every stay so far (except for the time I booked the number one resort in Bali, which also turned out to be a yoga retreat and I *accidentally* failed to share that vital piece of info with my husband…but that is another story).