Did yet another fake review slip past TripAdvisor?

showerSara Jensen had such an awful stay at the Hotel Toshi in New York that she decided to write about it on TripAdvisor. Little did she know that a hotel representative pretending to be a satisfied guest would promptly post a positive review to counter her comments. Or that TripAdvisor would allow it.

This is just the latest in a series of developments that have called into question the reliability of user-generated reviews on TripAdvisor. (Since my latest post about the company, it has stopped responding to my requests for comments. I have, however, asked for its side of the story.)

Here’s an excerpt of the letter Jensen wrote to the hotel after her stay. The couple and their child had to be moved to another room because of unsafe conditions. This is what awaited them in the second room:

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I walked into the kitchen and found the spring-loaded mousetrap in the doorway to the bedroom.

The couch was not a nice leathery shiny couch as depicted in the flickr photos sent to us by the office, it was a dirty misshapen futon type thing, kinda different!

We proceeded to unpack and give our son a bath, it was late and we were very tired. Mid-bath, we noticed water dripping from the bathroom ceiling and fragments of the sheetrock began falling on our heads, stripes of wall were hanging down. Once more we called the office, to the usual routine of whoever answered the phone incessantly interrupting and talking over us instead of letting us explain the situation. Our son was asleep and they again suggested that we move to another unit, as if we were gypsies. We had just unpacked, again!

The super came down to the apartment, ripped a chunk of the ceiling off and left. We waited around for some time as the leak slowed and eventually stopped, not knowing if the super would return. Eventually we had to call the office to discover that he would not.

OK, so the place was a little run down. So the Jensens were unhappy with the Hotel Toshi.

It’s safe to say the hotel was unhappy with the Jensens, too. Here’s what a hotel representative had to say when I inquired about their visit:

Sara Jensen and her husband were a real disaster for us. We have thousands of bookings each year at Hotel Toshi and having one toxic customer can be ruinous for a small business. Our entire staff were traumatized by the whole experience and absolutely nothing we did would appease them.

Indeed. At checkout, she voiced her dissatisfaction with their accommodations.

Hotel Toshi’s response was initially “We can’t give you back your payment, that would be unfair to us.”

Then, as we were leaving the premises, they agreed to give us back half of our payment but we would have to agree to not say anything publicly about our stay as that would “not be a settlement” and they would only pay it by PayPal (which would allow them to cancel the payment if we did).

Considering that our refund was solely for our incredible discomfort and aggravation, and we would be horrible people if we let Hotel Toshi rip off another traveler like they did us, we told them no dice and refused the refund.

A half an hour later, the manager called us frantically trying to “resolve the situation,” asking us to “just forget about the whole thing.” I got the impression that this kind of thing happens to them a lot. We refused the refund on the grounds that buying our silence about their shady operation would be doing a disservice to any other travelers who would make the same mistake in booking there.

After that, the Jensens posted a lengthy review of the Hotel Toshi on TripAdvisor under the headline “This was the worst lodging experience of our lives.”

At this stage, we feel that the misrepresentation of the rooms borders on false advertising and we feel that our full payment that was promptly delivered was unwarranted. We have not received what we paid for and would seriously be in Hotel Toshi’s best interest that some portion of our fee be refunded.

Not long after that, another review on the Toshi by a user named “Chanuts” popped up just above hers, headlined, “Had a great time! Would stay again.” It raved:

Overall, I would stay again – definitely get a good bang for your buck. I think the apartment was in good condition given that a lot of buildings are pre-war buildings. I think it would be ideal for groups of friends or couples. Maybe not for you if you’re looking for a 5 star romantic getaway or if you have small children.

Ouch! That looked like a direct response to Jensen’s post.

Jensen decided to do a little investigative work, to find out where “Chanuts” was coming from. She found a Flickr user by the same name with promotional photos of the Hotel Toshi — seven months before the date of her stay. Chanuts also had posted a video (I can’t link to them because of its adult content) that strongly suggests she’s affiliated with the hotel.

“I thought that you’d at least get a laugh at how horrible they are at covering their tracks,” she told me.

Well, it’s funny in kind of a sad way. If it’s true.

I’m not entirely convinced that Chanuts is a hotel insider. Yes, the review looked a lot like a rebuttal. But having attractive photos of a hotel in your Flickr account doesn’t necessarily mean you’re employed by the property.

The hotel denies it has an employee that goes by the name “Chanuts.”

But I do agree with Jensen about one thing: This looks bad. Not just for the Toshi Hotel, but also for TripAdvisor.

TripAdvisor’s infamous fraud-detection algorithm should have at least flagged Chanuts’ review before it was posted.

(Photo: stevendepolo/Flickr Creative Commons)