New TripAdvisor whistleblower claims: some reviews are “totally fraudulent”

In the wake of the recent TripAdvisor rating scandal, two travel industry insiders are claiming reviews about their businesses have been faked, either by competitors or by themselves.

John Walker, who runs the Hotel Los Castaños — described as an intimate hotel of quality in Cartajima, a small village near Ronda, Spain, “with rooms ranging from stylishly economic to purely luxurious” — says rivals planted a bad review of his property.

They managed to get a number of reviews removed from our listing and posted a totally fraudulent review which has ruined our ratings. TripAdvisor seems to be refusing to remove it, despite what you quote April Robb as saying, that suspect reviews are immediately taken down. This shows that their site is open to abuse from not just owners but also of general users and competitors, which makes life more difficult in these very difficult times.

Walker is referring to the following review, posted by a contributor named Dwronda.

Reality check. The Los Castanos Hotel is 18 kilometers, 25+ minutes* from Ronda. Calling ‘Cartajima’ ‘Ronda’ is like calling the city of ‘Oakland,’ ‘San Francisco’. Last year, it took my family about about 30 minutes up and down some narrow mountain roads to travel from Ronda to Cartajima. There are some fine local artisans in Cartajima who weave cloth and rugs, so Cartajima is definitely worth a visit. But there are few restaurants or hikes around Cartajima. Los Castanos is a comfortable rural hotel, a two-star property by most standards. Simple rooms, no pool, lacks a full-service restaurant.

Walker responded to the complaint on TripAdvisor:

Los Castanos is not in central Ronda as one can see from the Tripadvisor map, but Ronda is our nearest town. We are located in a tiny village about 14 minutes drive down a major highway and 6 minutes along a fairly narrow well-paved mountain road. Our guests come to us because they want to be in the Ronda area but not in the town.

Unfortunately, Cartajima does not boast any artisans or weavers.

We have a small, spectacularly located pool on our rooftop terrace (see photo at the top of this page) and we have a restaurant for our guests only (see other reviews).

A recent Daily Telegraph reporter described the hiking in this quiet valley as ‘the best I have ever done’, and we have a contract with a walking company for week-long walking holidays.

Regarding the amenities in the hotel, I would advise readers to look at the other reviews.

Did this review “ruin” the Los Castanos’ rating? Hardly. A vast majority of its guests rated it as “excellent.”

All of which brings me to the next complaint from William, a former restaurateur who told me about how he leveraged TripAdvisor to increase his business.

I just wanted to give you my input on my experience as a business owner who artificially “upped” my own rating.

I live in Costa Rica and used to own a very popular restaurant in a resort town on the pacific coast. My restaurant was a huge success, and for the most part my advertising was word of mouth. Any time you get a group of gringos together, they WILL compare notes on the must do’s and must don’ts. We quickly became a must-do.

I began tracking feedback about my restaurant on TripAdvisors “rants and raves” page. It very quickly occurred to me that I could right in glowing reviews about my own restaurant and up my ratings numbers. Luckily, that wasn’t necessary at first. We had some great reviews from actual real life clients and we maintained a 4 to 4.5 rating.

After a period of time, I began to see my rating slide a bit after some not so positive postings by supposedly “real” customers. The complaints that were written about seemed somewhat contrived, and as I was owner and general manager I would have become aware very quickly about these types of complaints.

Were they posted by my competition?

Perhaps, but I didn’t let it concern me too much. I simply got on TripAdvisor and bombarded them with glowing reviews about my own restaurant! Within days, I was rated a perfect 5!

During that same time my competitors ratings mysteriously declined, and the negative reviews for their restaurants came from all over the US — including Debby from Dallas! No joke.

I still use TripAdvisor for my travels around the globe, but I always throw out the high and the low score and rely on what lies in the middle. Usually the truth.

These claims are disturbing, to say the least. But in talking with TripAdvisor, which admits it is unable to catch every fraudulent review, it seems this may expose an active community of travel insiders who successfully doctor some of the site’s reviews.

There has to be a better way to get authentic reviews about hotels and restaurants.


For some hotel guests, opaque stars don’t shine as brightly

Is something wrong with the star ratings system used by “opaque” sites such as Hotwire and Priceline?

I ask that question for two reasons: First, I’ve been fielding an awful lot of complaints from travelers who claim the star ratings systems are bogus, which is to say a promised four-star property only meets three-star standards, for example. (Look for several of these in upcoming Travel Troubleshooter columns.)

And second, because even though both companies are aware of the gripes, they don’t seem to be moving toward a resolution. At least not in Louise Werner’s case.

Let me hand the mic to her for a second.

I’ve booked hotels with Hotwire many times over the years, and never had a problem – until tonight.

I arrived in Tucumcari, NM, and saw numerous hotels with great prices advertised – Econolodge, Travelodge, etc., for under $40 for two, but thought I could get a nicer place at a great price through Hotwire.

I wound up with the Super 8, advertised as 2 star, at $65. It was so decrepit looking I wouldn’t even go inside!

I called Hotwire and was told I could get a refund as long as I booked a higher rated hotel on their site. This time I wound up with the La Quinta Inn at $102. Way overpriced, but not a bad hotel, except the pool has not yet opened even though it is advertised, and I would not rate it more than 2 or at the most 2.5 stars. Since I love to swim, I was extremely disappointed.

But what took the cake was the fact that Hotwire paid the hotel $71.18 (including tax) for my room while charging me $102. So it cost me more than $30 to book through this site. I am astounded and outraged, and asked for a refund of the difference, to no avail.

There are two separate issues here. Let’s start with the rate difference. Hotwire buys rooms in bulk and resells them at a markup. That’s how it makes money. I’m sure La Quinta would be happy to sell Werner rooms at $71 a night — if she booked a few hundred of them.

The second issue is a little bit more complicated. I’ve been back and forth with both Hotwire and Priceline, the two major “opaque” Web sites (so named because you don’t see the name of the hotel until you’ve already paid for it).

Let me start by saying that no star rating system is perfect. Not even those in Europe, which are highly regarded but way too rigid.

Opaque sites have a homegrown rating system that can change as hotels upgrade — or downgrade — their facilities.

Here’s how Hotwire comes up with its stars and here’s Priceline’s star rating system explained.

But lately, after reading stories like Werner’s and dealing with several dozen rating-related problems with both Hotwire and Priceline, I’m concerned.

To paraphrase Elmer, I think something is vewwy, vewwy wrong here.

Are opaque sites intentionally upping some hotels by half a star to squeeze more money out of their customers? Are hotels intentionally overstating their amenities in order to squeeze more money out of Hotwire and Priceline? Or are people just complaining more?

Look for a whole series of columns in coming weeks on the star problem. A little teaser: Some have happy endings. Others not.

What do you think is going on here?