Meriton cops AU$3m fine for being tricky to avoid bad TripAdvisor reviews

The Federal Court has hit Meriton Serviced Apartments with a fine for breaching Australian Consumer Law.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has chalked up another victory defending Australian Consumer Law, with Meriton being hit with a fine of AU$3 million by the Federal Court on Tuesday.

The ACCC began action against Meriton in November 2016, when the property giant was alleged to have prevented users from using TripAdvisor's "Review Express" service -- an arrangement where accommodation businesses pass on consenting customer email addresses so that the review site may email them with a prompt to review their stay.

The Federal Court concluded that Meriton had interfered with guests being able to review its serviced apartments in November 2017, and said that for almost a year to October 2015, Meriton had engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct with the addition of extra characters into email addresses to prevent the TripAdvisor emails from reaching their intended inbox, or not passing on the details at all.

In several instances where its hotels had issues, such as broken lifts or a lack of hot water, the court found that Meriton had steered the emails away from a majority of its guests.

"Meriton's management directed staff to engage in 'masking' to stop potentially negative reviews from appearing on TripAdvisor. This gave the impression Meriton accommodation was of a higher standard than otherwise may have been the case," ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court said on Tuesday.

"People often make purchasing decisions for accommodation based on the rankings and reviews they read on third-party sites like TripAdvisor. Manipulating these reviews is misleading to potential customers, who deserve the full picture when making a booking decision.

"This case sends a strong message that businesses can expect ACCC enforcement action if they're caught manipulating feedback on third-party review websites."

The ACCC has had a number of wins recently, with Netgear signing an undertaking in February to stop telling customers they were not entitled to a remedy for a faulty product unless they had purchased additional warranty.

In June, Fitbit then signed an enforceable undertaking after the ACCC accused it of misleading consumers.

After a four-year legal stoush against US-based video game distributor and sometimes creator Valve Corporation, the ACCC was successful in having a AU$3 million fine upheld as the High Court dismissed Valve's special leave application and left intact a ruling that the game distributor had engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct concerning the rights of Australian consumers.

"This important precedent confirms the ACCC's view that overseas-based companies selling to Australian consumers must abide by our laws. If customers buy a product online that is faulty, they are entitled to the same right to a repair, replacement, or refund as if they'd walked in to a store," the ACCC said at the time.

Earlier this month, the ACCC began proceedings against Amaysim in the Australian Federal Court, claiming false and misleading marketing claims concerning discounts on its energy brand.

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