Let’s stop the review extortionists once and for all

Review extortionists are at the top of my list of the most evil consumers, a place occupied by tantrum-throwing elites, fare thieves and hackers.

These ethically-challenged customers hit up a business for a free product in exchange for not sharing a scathing and untruthful review on Yelp, TripAdvisor or their favorite loyalty program forum. And often — too often — it works. The business backs down, hoping to avoid public embarrassment.

If you’ve ever wondered what a close encounter with one of these professional complainers is like, meet Joe Hensley, who used to own a bed and breakfast in Northern California. I’ve agreed to leave the name of the property out of this story to avoid additional unpleasantness for the inn’s new owner.

“We had a couple visit us who were professional complainers,” he says. “The wife would approach my co-innkeeper, Celeste, make one small complimentary comment, and then give us a long list of mostly ridiculous complaints.”

Ah, that’s a favorite strategy of the complaining class: Wrap a gripe in a compliment. Goes down easier.

Obviously, these guests knew what they were doing.

They pored over our website and used that as a basis for their complaints. For example, they asked for a handicapped-accessible cottage because the husband had a challenge getting around – a back and leg problem, if I remember correctly.

They were “upset” that their cottage did not have the advertised bistro table and chairs. They liked that to play cards. We suggested they use the ottoman and comfortable, overstuffed chairs. They directly declined.

We offered them two outdoor tables – a great spot in the comfortable Napa weather. Nope, that didn’t work either.

After two days of incessant complaints, Hensley knocked on the door of the couple’s cottage and offered a refund for their last night, “because it was evident to us that they were not comfortable in the inn,” he says. “This, after we had borrowed a microwave so the wife could heat her back reliever in the middle of the night.” (The property doesn’t offer in-room microwaves in its room descriptions.)

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The offer didn’t go over well.

“The wife rolled her eyes to her husband – it was almost like it had been previously rehearsed – and stated, ‘Is that all?'”

Then the trap sprung shut at check-out. The husband accepted the offer and asked for one more, “in exchange for not publishing a negative review.”

What would you have done? Negotiated? Settled? Declined?

“We politely declined and commented that we felt we had provided good value for what they had paid,” he says.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

“The wife left a sweater in her cottage and we called them as quickly as we could so they could return to pick up the sweater,” remembers Hensley. “I wonder if this was done on purpose?”

After the couple returned home, the innkeepers received a $500 refund request from American Express.

“This was about 55 percent of what they paid us,” he says. “When we contacted AmEx, they had no written request, just a phone call to request the refund with two to three questionable complaints.”

AmEx sided with the hotel.

Then came the TripAdvisor review, which also contained several inaccuracies. They also discovered a way to report the fraud by guests. Efforts to report the professional extortionists amounted to nothing.

“It was not successful,” he says.

Some of you might be wondering how our advocacy team would have handled a complaint like that if it had come from the customer. This couple’s laundry list of problems would have been met with a polite form rejection.

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No card table? No microwave? Come on.

And yet innkeepers cower in fear when someone mentions they’ll unload their frustrations on TripAdvisor. Because they know TripAdvisor and the other user-generated review sites don’t bother fact-checking or verifying their reviewers. Half of all user-generated reviews are said to be fakes, yet most people believe them. What’s wrong with this picture?

Should user-generated review sites do more to stop review extortionists?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • taxed2themax

    I’m a little on the fence in that I think it’s wrong for either side to use this kind of tactic.. I also think that you can fact-check some things, but others will remain very much he-said, she-said stories and can’t be proven by an independent source that has no vested interest in the matter. I have some reservations about the notion of removing/blocking such entries, only because I am concerned about that intentional or accidental misuse of that ability by any one side or 3rd party.
    When I read reviews, I tend to look at the credibility of the reviewer as well, so perhaps if more of the backstory were given that might help put a review – regardless of the side it comes from – into a better context.
    I believe that no matter what the system, there will be a minority few who choose to willful manipulate it in such as manner as to create a wholly self-serving interest outcome.

  • Yes, review sites should do more to verify reviews. Some do. I do. It’s manual, it takes time and it asks a lot of the reviewer but it’s necessary and worthwhile in my opinion.

  • KanExplore

    You have an absolutely valid point, but how does either a review website or reader know what’s an extortionate or fake review, and what’s a very legitimate complaint about services delivered poorly or not at all? I know the reviews matter to many service providers, and this does offer to travelers a way to game a system. I wish I could offer a good solution, but I don’t see one. Most of the fake reviews cited in the 50% figure are from people who never, for example, stayed at the place being reviewed or are planted by the place itself. That can be controlled better by a careful website than an extortionate one like the one described here seems to be. I’m wondering what your own suggestions would be here.

  • Fishplate

    I’d like to think that their review would stand out against what should be a list of positive reviews, if the actions of the owner reflect the typical experience.

    That’s one reason why I try to always leave a positive review for good properties, and I never judge based on one or two outliers.

  • Fishplate

    And, were I the owner, I would stop accepting AmEx as a form of payment.

  • sirwired

    Why? AmEx sided with the hotel… looks like they came through just fine.

    I think there are few credit cards that require a written dispute letter any more; initiating the dispute with a phone call is enough for most cases. Why wouldn’t it?

  • Alan Gore

    Laws are already being formulated against the other kind of review extortion, in which the adhesion contract with the customer fines the customer for negative online reviews. Because a company has no legal standing to levy ‘fines’ on a customer after a transaction is complete, the charge is sent through as an extra bill, like those after-the-fact damages in car rental cases, and ends up as a blotch on the customer’s credit standing.

    Such a law could be written to cover both kinds of online review extortion.

  • Fishplate

    Correct. I misread the story. Too early, I guess.

  • Patrica

    I NEVER EVER let a provider know I review for Trip Advisor. There IS an opportunity for the rental place/airline/? to respond to comments on trip advisor. Whenever I have reviewed and posted how the provider did/did not solve a problem, most of the time they respond and sometimes thank me for posting… It’s always important to look at a number of reviews AND to look at the dates for posting. P.S., you can also look at all the reviews by the person and see if they are slanted in one direction. I abhor the techniques used by the Whiners when they rented, as do all serious reviewers.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    “Such a law could be written to cover both kinds of online review extortion.”

    I’m not following how it could be easily written to cover the sort of extortion covered in this story. The only tangible evidence this ever happened was a negative online review and there are tons of those legitimately written every single day. How could the business actually PROVE to a court they’re in the right? You’d basically need recordings and even then the people would have to be really brazen in what they said to legally cross any line. Simply having a dispute and writing a negative review wouldn’t be enough, you’d have to prove it was extortion and that’d be nearly impossible in most cases.

  • JenniferFinger

    Given that most complaints seem to be “he-said/she-said” and the review sites don’t really have any way to verify stories except to ask all sides for input, I don’t see what else the review sites can do to ensure that a review isn’t fake except ask for credentials, to make sure that the great reviews aren’t coming from interested parties like friends, relatives, and employees of the vendors.

    That said, maybe, in the cases of review extortionists like the one in today’s column, the vendors need to call the reviewers’ bluffs – let the reviewers post and have the public see either that their bad reviews are not exactly credible on their faces, or reply with their side of the case so that the readers of those reviews see both sides of the case.

  • Tanya

    I think that most consumers who use tripadvisor look at the entirety of the comments and possibly even the # of comments a person has left. If I see a one off bad review, whatever, if the rest are stellar, I just think, this person has let a small problem morph into a huge one, or that they are a constant complainer. However, if that review plus a good majority of the others state the same thing, I do tend to move on. Unless a property has a magnetic field attracting only complainers, then I think the reviews and comments even out.

  • AAGK

    If I see numerous glowing reviews for a property, I will click on the negative ones to check the nature of the complaints. If I see no card table and no microwave, as I don’t care about those things, I will generally disregard overall service complaints from that reviewer as clearly the issue was unique to them. The hotel business is based on customer experiences. The equalizer here is that the customer who cannot be satisfied is a problem all hotels encounter.

  • AJPeabody

    Liars lie. Thieves steal. Tripadvisor does not come with an internet polygraph. All that we can do is bring many grains of salt with us when we read reviews, and, for that matter, the replies of businesses.

  • Nathan Witt

    There’s absolutely nothing stopping the business being reviewed from replying to these reviews and mentioning that they declined to participate in the extortion. If I see a negative review with a prompt reply outlining the steps that the business took to address the concerns, the discounts that were offered, and the customer’s attempts to extort further discounts, I’m not very likely to take that negative review seriously.

  • ctporter

    First, I was glad to see the line “Some of you might be wondering how our advocacy team would have handled a complaint like that if it had come from the customer. This couple’s laundry list of problems would have been met with a polite form rejection.” because it does seem at times that the consumer is always right, that acting as your own TA absolves a consumer of having common sense or responsibility. Second, The blog made me go back and look at the reviews I have done over the years. I typically only post when something has been above average – letting others know what were the specifics about what I experience that made my experience there different than the multitude of experiences I have had. When I read the negative reviews I am looking for how issues (if any) were handled. If you had a complaint, did you make that complaint then or after the fact? (after the fact is useless to me and seems more like looking for compensation, bonus points, etc) Glowing reviews should give me an idea of why, what was so above the norm? And yes, I look to see if the property (if a hotel) reads and responds.

  • LonnieC

    And you’ve pointed out an important matter: there is an opportunity for the provider to respond. There’s no reason responders can’t defend themselves. And I always look for the response after a negative review. Am I missing something?

  • Pegtoo

    Some responses to bad reviews are really fun to read… especially when the property owner/manager stays professional and explains in amazingly kind detail how long and hard they tried to appease the reviewer…and you clearly realize the poor property owner could never appease this client. A+ professional writing skills!

  • Altosk

    Remember the news story about the couple who left a negative review on some internet retalier for a $20 item that was never received and then were slapped with a $3000 “fine” for the review?

    Yeah, that garbage doesn’t fly, either.

    Companies and customers need to BOTH be honorable.

  • technomage1

    I’m the same way. It’s pretty easy to pick out the nit noids or chronic complainers in the reveiws.

  • technomage1

    I managed to find the Trip Advisor review. It’s below, with names removed to protect the property owner from further trolling.

    My wife and I were planning a vacation to California, including the Napa Valley. My daughter suggested The Cottages of Napa Valley but they didn’t have availability so I began searching the internet and came across the ******** and their website looked oh so inviting. Instead it was all paint and powder and very disappointing amenities. The website and brochures mention a breakfast nook in each room, what it doesn’t say is that due to ADA requirements they took one of the units and made it handicap accessible. This removed the breakfast area and left a useless cubbyhole area with a tea cart with a mini-fridge. The fridge made enough ice to have one glass of iced bottle water, which they are oh so very proud to provide. The “private” deck is a front porch that has the view of a hillside is just about all you can see. It’s hot, dusty, and not inviting at all. They did provide a small basket with some croissants from the grocery store bakery, a bowl of berries, and a carafe of juice. There was a coffee maker in the room with a small canister of coffee from the coffee shop in town. My wife did manage to get them to borrow a microwave oven from somewhere so we were able to warm up a few things but don’t expect have one provided. The bed was alright, nothing spectacular, and the presence of bugs on my wife’s pillow each night was not pleasant at all. We mentioned this to the owner and she didn’t seem too concerned about it at all. There was a crack under the entry door that I’m sure allowed access to a variety of critters and vermin. My wife complained once too often and we were invited to leave and told that we wouldn’t be charged for the final night of our stay. That was all well and good but my question was what about the other nights where we paid for a certain level of service and we did not get that level. I suggest in the strongest terms possible that you pass this place by and stay at other more established and properly run hotels in the area.

  • Alan Gore

    One could call the customer’s bluff and, if the offending review were published, claim against it in any errors of fact that it might contain, citing the verbal agreement at trial as an indication of customer attitude.

  • judyserienagy

    Perhaps I’m naïve, but I don’t see how public reviews can or should be “regulated”. I don’t book anything without reading the reviews: a hotel room, a shore excursion from a cruise ship, a restaurant … and I’ve done this for years. If someone’s complaint relates to a topic of no concern to me, I can ignore it. It is so simple to spot a “chronic complainer” review for a hotel, a sight, a cruise, or one who had one bad experience that colored everything else and whines about all of it … but that does require us to READ the reviews. I’d guess that I read at least a dozen, more if the reviews are mixed. I do wish that the establishments would put more effort into their responses instead of just responding with a paragraph of bubble. If they can’t put someone in charge who can think and communicate effectively, then they shouldn’t respond at all. Some entities respond very clearly and completely, addressing the complaints, and I appreciate that.

  • John McDonald

    you’d have to be stupid to even bother with tripadvisor reviews. For a small fee, some person in India will give anyone 1,000 +ve reviews & the opposition 1,000 -ve reviews. This can never ever be stopped.

  • bpepy

    We have found that often reviews vary a lot. We tend to look at overall reviews–there’s always someone who thinks the restaurant/hotel, etc was terrible, but if most reviews are positive, we take the negative ones less seriously. It’s a judgement call.

  • pauletteb

    I have a feeling this wasn’t the couple’s first revenge review, and perhaps TripAdvisor (I never take Yelp seriously) could develop an algorithm to spot those who post only negative reviews and block them.

  • Bill___A

    I don’t like when people try to extort or complain when there is no basis for complaint, and I also don’t like it when hotels “brush off” major issues as an isolated occurrence when in fact it is a regular occurrence. In the end, there is no reasonable answer. We need to have more of these obviously wrong reviews tossed out, but at the same time, a hotel should not be allowed to “brush” off something that is a serious infraction.

    I was part of a tour group and one hotel we went to was so obnoxious with several things that at least 80% of the people who stayed there were highly dissatisfied. However, they tried to minimize complaints on Tripadvisor by “conveniently” misunderstanding and providing some sort of “different” answer in every case. And also a large number of “overly complimentary” reviews seemed to appear. The property had great possibilities but the people running it were pretty nasty.

    It goes both ways.

  • Asiansm Dan

    Most of review readers are intelligent enough to sort out which reviews are truthful and relatively accurate . A review reader is likely someone to do research and rely on more than one source of reviews. No way and resource could guarantee accuracy of any database, including Credit Report Firms and Government Agencies.

  • just me

    What a story. Chris do you really believe any of the loaded with snipe comments pseudo-facts reported by the innkeeper?
    Elites and any other customers are not out of line. As soon as we all are provided with services we pay for, often overpay, the T&C of the companies stop beginning with “You have no say and we are always right and we can change T&C anytime without as much as letting you know” (look at American Airlines T&C for starters) things will change dramatically.
    And than I think that >99% of the abuse of customers is not being reported to any websites.
    And what is being reported is just a very tip of the huge iceberg.
    And whose ethics are you talking about?

  • Jim Daniel

    I get it, and I have seen reviews that seemed to fit this mold on YELP! For all it’s shortcomings, a little diligence on YELP! can actually yield a very valid picture of the reviews and each individual reviewer. Most other sites don’t offer that and you have to take them at face value.

    The cafe that didn’t have wine even though the YELP! profile clearly states such. There is the opposite also, someone who has only reviewed one or two places giving a totally out-or-place review with five stars and glowing compliments.

    I had one on my business in which I had a call for service, and I quoted a price for a routine service. Then the request became a rush, and after some pleading I agreed to charge the routine rate for rush service. Within the hour, there was some confusion about where the person I was to reach out to was, and instead of going to one location, it quickly became four. When I was unable to find that individual and sent a bill for several hours running all over the city, there was a total refusal to pay and a very nasty review.

    Lucky for me, this person owned real estate and a quick trip to Small Claims court solidified my claim, and some day, when that property sells, transfers, or is re-financed, I’ll get all my money with 10% interest. I was also able to convince YELP! to remove her review (my only negative review) after receiving that judgement.,

  • just me

    Exactly – the AmEx T&C with the hotel have much stronger protections for consumers than any then credit card or federal law. Also in all likelihood AmEx already had similar complaints on that place.

  • Lee

    Of course, they aren’t doing enough but given how savvy people are in using and abusing social media, I doubt they (businesses/forum websites) can keep up with continually evolving methods of utilizing the internet/social media to cause harm (yes, I know it has very good aspects as well but this isn’t one of them) –

    Such people behaving this way, I am 100% certain are exactly the same in real life, trying whatever nasty thing they can do to get something for nothing or damage their target if they don’t get what they demand. I’ve seen it live and in person in restaurants and shops. It is deplorable but, sadly, one of the unfortunate aspects of some human behavior.

    I don’t leave reviews and, if I did, I would never leave a negative review as I can see how impactful reviews now are on businesses. I have had crummy stays at hotels, disappointing meals but so what? It’s part of life – nothing is perfect and I’ve no interest in even remotely contributing to the harm of someone’s business. Life is hard enough.

    But, these sorts of people (the ones in this story) thrive on this sort of thing, they get immense satisfaction – reminds me of the awful anonymous people who say terrible things about someone on twitter, etc. So much ugly behavior has been revealed thanks to the internet/social media; not that it didn’t exist before, but I never knew there was so very much of it.

  • Lee

    Reminds of me some of these kinds of reviewers who take photos of every window, sink, floorboard, sheet, etc as if in anticipation of the glee they will experience when they finally get to submit their negative reviews. I’m just always glad none are in my personal life….

  • Tricia Campbell

    I think sites that allow anyone to submit a review should always have a process to double check their legitimacy – whether good or bad. Something as simple as confirming an email address by sending a verification or requiring a real name and address (for internal use, not shared obviously) would go a long way.

    However, I think we also need to be careful on the other side of the argument that sometimes a bad review on a public site is the only recourse a consumer has to get any action. Case in point, I had a $2,000 fridge that was just over two months out of warranty (it only had a one year warranty, but don’t get me started on that!) and the compressor failed (easily an $800 repair). I contacted the company directly and they basically told me to go pound sand. I posted a complaint on their Facebook page and, long story short, they made the repair. I’m not a professional complainer, but making a public declaration of my disappointment certainly got the results I needed (and expected, given the age of the appliance, the price I paid, and the potential cost of the repair). I’m always careful to follow up publicly when the company does right by me. Negative reviews are one thing, but when a company steps up to the plate, they should also receive kudos.

  • ChelseaGirl

    I am not sure what more Trip Advisor and other sites can do to stop such people. There is really no way for them to filter out the whiners. There is already a way for the property owner to respond to reviews, which is the best way to handle it. When I read reviews, I can tell right away if the person is a professional complainer. You can tell by what they complain about, and I think most people can figure out the reviews that have no merit. The other day I looked at all the reviews a particular person had written–another way to spot a professional complainer–and they were almost all nitpicky. So you have to ask yourself, Is it really the properties or is this person just impossible to please? I think it’s the latter.

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