TripAdvisor Blackmailers Demand Cash and Freebies

NEW YORK (MainStreet) - Want to score a free hotel room? Assuming you have no ethics?

There's an unscrupulous gambit known to work, but know this tactic - although becoming more common - is also becoming more perilous: the TripAdivsor  (TRIP) blackmail.

One innkeeper in the Midwest, who has experienced this predicament spoke with MainStreet only under anonymity, because he does not want to encourage repeat blackmailers who use threats to cadge free rooms.

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This inn has many hundreds of TripAdvisor reviews. 99% are excellent. 1% are very good. It has none worse than that, and the owner is proud of that unblemished record.

So when a guest whistled him aside one morning and said, "I'm going to give you a horrible TripAdvisor review. Couldn't sleep a wink. Awful mattress" -- the owner went into panic mode.

"What can I do?"

"You can comp me the room, and I won't post on TripAdvisor," said the guest.

The owner quickly agreed - initially it seemed like a good deal.

Later he realized this was all wrong, that he had been scammed. "So many people tell me they love our mattresses, that they want to buy them for their homes," said the innkeeper.

But in that moment he gave in and that is just one of many hundreds - possibly thousands - of such extortion attempts that play out daily.

A wave of TripAdvisor spawned blackmail appears to be sweeping the country.

Evidence mounts in the United Kingdom, too, where, in recent weeks, newspapers have been awash with stories of TripAdvisor blackmail. The headline in the Tory broadsheet The Telegraph screamed: "Hotels 'hostage to TripAdvisor blackmailers.'"

"Restaurant, hotel and B&B owners in Britain have reported a huge rise in the number of customers using the site as a threat," The Telegraph wrote. "They say the guests often make a complaint and say they will post a bad review unless given a free bottle of wine, dessert or a bill reduction."

But word of advice: hold off before jumping on this freebie train. Not only is it unethical, but now hoteliers are gathering their weapons and at least some are counterattacking.

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In the U.S., Kevin Beauchesne, who owns Bryson City Cabin Rentals in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, said that he "frequently" encounters guests who demand a freebie or "they will post a negative review."

Beauchesne is so frustrated, he is talking with an attorney about the legal recourse he might have.

Maria Rekrut, who owns a vacation rental business in Niagara Falls, said that TripAdvisor blackmail has become "the hottest topic among vacation rental owners."

She added that in some cases, guests have demanded hard cash or else. Rekrut refused to pay up and, she said, they in fact posted their negative reviews.

Fact: instances of attempted blackmail appear to focus on smaller, independent inns, B&Bs and vacation rentals. Big, professionally managed properties have been trained to say buzz off to would-be blackmailers because, frankly, the impact of a single negative review cannot be shown to be large.

But even some small innkeepers now are directly fighting back.

Larry Willis. who owns an inn in California's Sonoma County, told his story: "We only experienced this once, but it was a blatant case of extortion. A couple stayed three days and were quite pleasant the whole time. The day they departed, we had a nice conversation and they said how enjoyable the trip had been. Three days later, we got an email complaining about the foul odor in the room, which had ruined their vacation. They asked for a full refund or we'd be getting a negative TripAdvisor review. I told her to go ahead and write the review. She did, but it was a rambling and less than clear. I responded on TripAdvisor and to her directly. No further contact was ever made."

Willis said the negative review created no hit on his business.

That is a lesson more innkeepers are learning: many nasty reviews just sail wide of the mark.

Then, too, TripAdvisor now is joining in on the side of the innkeepers.

"Allegations of blackmail or threatening behavior by guests against property owners are taken very seriously by TripAdvisor," TripAdvisor spokesperson Kevin Carter told MainStreet. "If an owner experiences this, we urge them to contact us immediately."

Carter added: "We now have a way for owners to proactively report these threats before a corresponding review is submitted. Immediate reporting of blackmail threats, via our Management Center, can supplement our investigative procedure and help us keep blackmail reviews from ever reaching the site."

There also are whispers - unconfirmed by TripAdvisor - that the review site is actively taking steps to ban would-be blackmailers.

Bottomline: innkeepers are toughening up and TripAdvisor is giving them ammo. That does not mean blackmail is at an end, but it does mean the chances of success are diminishing.

--Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet

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