THE owner of a business that sold fake positive TripAdvisor reviews to hotels and restaurants in Italy has been jailed for nine months in what the travel website hailed as a landmark ruling.
In one of the first cases of its kind, a court in Lecce in the southern region of Puglia ruled that writing bogus reviews under false identities is a crime.
The unnamed businessman, who ran a website called Promo Salento, tried to sell more than 1,000 fictional reviews to hundreds of restaurants and hotels to boost their rankings.
He charged 100 pounds ($A180) for 10 reviews, 170 pounds for 20 and 240 pounds for 30. As well as the jail term, he was ordered to pay 8,000 pounds in costs and damages.
TripAdvisor called the ruling "pivotal" and said in statement: "Paid review fraud - when companies or individuals 'sell' fake reviews to business owners - is a violation of the law in many jurisdictions. But this is one of the first cases of enforcement resulting in a criminal conviction."
TripAdvisor collaborated in the case by sharing research from its own investigations into fraudulent reviews.
Brad Young, a vice-president of the company, said: "We see this as a landmark ruling for the internet. Writing fake reviews has always been fraud, but this is the first time we've seen someone sent to jail as a result."
Mr Young said that in the last three years, TripAdvisor had stopped the activities of more than 60 online enterprises offering made-up reviews.
But he added: "We can only do so much alone, which is why we're eager to collaborate with regulators and law enforcement authorities to support their prosecutions."
The Lecce case ended in June but the explanation of the sentence has only recently been released, as is customary under Italian law.
Pascal Lamy, of the World Tourism Organisation, also welcomed the outcome of the trial. He said: "Online reviews play a major role in purchasing decisions, but it's important everyone plays by the rules."
TripAdvisor appealed to business owners who are contacted by online platforms offering fake reviews to report them to its investigators.
The review site claims to be the largest of its kind in the world, listing nearly eight million hotels, restaurants and travel experiences which together have attracted more than 660 million reviews. Online reviews can make the difference between success and failure for many businesses.
A BBC investigation this year found that fake online reviews were traded openly on the internet. It found online forums where Amazon shoppers were offered full refunds in return for positive reviews of products.
The UK Competition and Markets Authority estimates that online reviews influence up to 23 billion pounds of British spending every year.
The Telegraph, London