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. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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