TripAdvisor's business practices under review by FTC as more travelers say their warnings of rapes, injuries were blocked

TripAdvisor's business practices under review by FTC as more travelers say their warnings of rapes, injuries were blocked

USA TODAY NETWORKRaquel Rutledge, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Published 12:45 p.m. ET Nov. 21, 2017 | Updated 7:58 p.m. ET Nov. 21, 2017

Here's what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel discovered about TripAdvisor's vacation service. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Dawn Allison didn’t know when she went to the ladies’ room at Rams Head Tavern south of Baltimore that just two days earlier a woman had found a hidden camera on the floor near the toilet and gave it to police. 

Allison and her family had been to the restaurant several times, celebrating Mother’s Day and other family occasions. She never dreamed anybody would be spying on her while she was using the bathroom.

She found out through a newspaper story a few weeks later that the owner of the restaurant — a well-known businessman in the community — had been charged with six counts of secretly videotaping women with their pants down.

“The first thing I wanted to do was to make sure this was on TripAdvisor warning people of what was going on,” said Burgess Allison, her husband. “I posted a short blurb that basically said, ‘Oh my goodness, this guy is running a Peeping Tom camera.’ ”

Within a day, the post was deleted.

An email from TripAdvisor to the Allisons, who share a TripAdvisor account, said it didn’t meet the website’s guidelines.

“The first thing I wanted to do was to make sure this was on TripAdvisor warning people of what was going on.”

Burgess Allison, TripAdvisor contributor who tried to warn users that a restaurant owner had been arrested for using a surveillance camera in his eatery's restroom
Until then, the Allisons, a couple in their mid-60s who now live in North Carolina but used to live closer to the restaurant, had been frequent TripAdvisor contributors.

The company’s refusal to post what the Allisons considered important safety information soured their enthusiasm for the site and sparked a three-year battle that concluded last week when TripAdvisor published their post — albeit on a forum page for the state of Maryland, rather than as a review attached to the restaurant where diners would be more likely to see it.

An investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, published Nov. 1, revealed that TripAdvisor had deleted reports of rapes, blackouts and other injuries and deaths among travelers vacationing in Mexico.

Since then, dozens more people who have traveled around the world have told the Journal Sentinel that TripAdvisor silenced their reports of disturbing, sometimes terrifying experiences. 

The Federal Trade Commission is now looking into TripAdvisor’s business practices, according to a letter sent Friday to Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., who had urged the agency to take action.

“The Commission has a strong interest in protecting consumer confidence in the online marketplace, including the robust online market for hotel and travel,” wrote Maureen Ohlhausen, acting chairwoman of the FTC. “When consumers are unable to post honest reviews about a business, it can harm other consumers whose abilities to make well-informed purchase decisions are hindered and harm businesses that work hard to earn positive reviews.”

On Monday, the president of the International Hotel & Restaurant Association in Geneva, Switzerland, told the Journal Sentinel his organization might come up with its own system of punishment for hotels and other establishments where serious injuries and deaths take place.

On Tuesday, a lawyer in Texas representing the family of the Wisconsin woman who drowned in January under mysterious circumstances at a resort pool in Mexico, said he has received about 30 calls in the past couple of weeks from people who had their negative posts deleted by TripAdvisor.

Aside from uncovering how TripAdvisor had deleted negative posts, deeming them hearsay, “off-topic” or in violation of “family friendly” guidelines, the Journal Sentinel investigation found the website’s policies and practices keep consumers in the dark in a multitude of ways.

Users have no way to know how many negative reviews TripAdvisor withheld, how many true, troubling experiences never get told.

And it’s difficult for site users to realize that much of what appears on their screens has been specifically selected and crafted to encourage them to spend.

Secret algorithms determine which hotels and resorts appear when consumers search. Some hotels pay TripAdvisor when travelers click on their links; some pay commissions when tourists book or travel.

An untold number of TripAdvisor users have been granted special privileges, including the ability to delete forum posts. But the company won’t disclose how those users are selected.

The $1.5 billion online travel website’s initial public response has been swift, rolling out a new warning system that marks resorts where safety concerns have been reported in the media. The company has promised to make other changes aimed at making it easier for travelers to share their troubling experiences.

In one case, the Journal Sentinel described how TripAdvisor repeatedly deleted a post from a Dallas woman who warned of dangers at a resort in Mexico in 2010 where she had been raped by a man in a security guard uniform. A TripAdvisor spokesman said the post was rejected because it violated the company’s “family friendly” guidelines.

Two days after that Journal Sentinel investigation was published Nov. 3, TripAdvisor co-founder and chief executive Steve Kaufer, assured the world the company’s policy had changed in recent years.

“Over time TripAdvisor has updated this policy to allow more descriptive reviews on the site about first-hand accounts of serious incidents like rape or assault,“ Kaufer wrote in a post on LinkedIn. “When we were made aware that this user's post had been removed, we republished it in line with our current policy.”

Kaufer’s statement contradicts the experience a travel writer from Russia had after she tried to post a review describing how she was raped this year at knifepoint by a housekeeper at the upscale, exclusive Six Senses Zil Pasyon in Seychelles, an island off the east coast of Africa.

In June and again in July, she tried to caution other travelers using TripAdvisor. Despite the criminal charges of sexual assault filed against the man, her attempts at posting her experience on TripAdvisor failed.

“I was looking for TripAdvisor people in Russia to give them my documentation,” said the woman, who asked that her name not be published because her son and parents don’t know what happened. “There was nobody to connect with and ask why they didn’t publish it. I write letters to general mail. I got nothing back.”

The Journal Sentinel confirmed her report through legal documents and with interviews. The man’s trial is scheduled for next month.

A spokesman for Bangkok-based Six Senses said in an email that the resort is cooperating with the investigation.

“We are eager to hear the ruling in this case and look forward to setting the record straight as there are great discrepancies in the claimant’s account,” the spokesman said.

TripAdvisor did not initially publish the woman’s review because she didn’t respond to a verification email and then tried to post from a different email address, the company's spokesman said.

It did publish the woman’s review Nov. 1 — the day the Journal Sentinel published its investigation.

Among the changes TripAdvisor has promised is to provide users with more specific information when their reviews and forum posts are rejected.

Many people told the Journal Sentinel that TripAdvisor had deemed their posts to contain hearsay, but the emails notifying them that their posts would not be published did not explain what language in their reviews violated the guidelines.

In addition, the company has vowed to better train moderators to be more consistent in how they apply the guidelines.

As for the new program that flags hotels and establishments where health, safety and discrimination issues have been publicized in the media, the company has issued four to date — all resorts in Mexico where travelers reported sexual assaults, blackouts and deaths to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

An internal committee decides which places will get the “badges” — which the company tentatively plans to keep posted for three months, according to TripAdvisor spokesman Brian Hoyt. It’s unclear exactly how the decisions are made.

The company will focus on places where there have been credible media reports of problems and where owners, employees or contractors are responsible, rather than guests, Hoyt said.

For example, the case of Erin Andrews, a TV sportscaster and co-host of Dancing with the Stars, who was secretly videotaped by a stalker while she was naked in a hotel room wouldn’t qualify, he said.

“So if Harvey Weinstein attacks somebody in a hotel room, that’s not something we’d badge,” Hoyt said. “It’s not something the hotel has under its control.”

Andrews sued the owners and managing company of the Nashville Marriott, saying they could have prevented the incident. They should have told her that a man requested the hotel room next to hers, the lawsuit argued. Last year, a jury awarded her $55 million and found the hotel to be partially to blame.

If any resort needs a warning badge, it’s the Grand Oasis in Cancun, according to Maureen Webster of Woburn, Mass., and Karen Smith of Bradenton, Fla.

The two women have been trying for years to caution travelers about staying there. Both of their adult sons drowned six years apart under suspicious circumstances at the resort’s pool.

A young woman drowned there in 2012 as well, and Mexican news reports indicate an employee of the hotel was murdered while working there. Travelers have also told the Journal Sentinel they blacked out after drinking small amounts of alcohol there in recent months.

Webster and Smith were blocked from reporting their sons’ deaths on TripAdvisor because they weren’t traveling with them. TripAdvisor considered their comments hearsay.

“It’s not hearsay that my son died at this resort,” Smith said. “It’s not hearsay that the resort refused our phone calls and emails and would not help us get any information, whatsoever.”

Representatives of Spain-based Oasis Hotels & Resorts did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Smith was encouraged in early November when she tried again to post on TripAdvisor. She had heard about the company’s new policies and the chief executive’s stated commitment to ensuring information about safety is easily shared.

“Stay away,” she wrote. “My son tragically died while vacationing here. He drowned in waist-high water in the late afternoon after consuming a few drinks at the swim-up bar. … No one from the resort would speak with us.”

She received an email from TripAdvisor the next day: “Your review of Grand Oasis Cancun has been published!”

Success, at last, she thought.

Four days later, the post was deleted.

Hoyt said reviews are meant to be first-hand accounts of travelers’ stays at the various properties.

Those rules have been in place for years, he said. The families can post their comments in the forum section but not as a review tied to a specific hotel.

But the company is striving to improve its policies, Hoyt said.

“We’re always looking to make enhancements,” he said. “There’s not a person who doesn’t feel for these families who lost a child.

“It’s something we’re grappling with and talking about.”

Nor has TripAdvisor slapped a badge on Rams Head Tavern.

Prosecutors alleged the owner, Kyle Muehlhauser, was secretly recording women pulling down their pants and sitting on the toilets in three different bathrooms over three years. Muehlhauser pleaded guilty in 2015 to two counts of visual surveillance with prurient intent.

When the Allisons initially tried to post information about the restaurant, they were told it violated TripAdvisor’s “family friendly” guidelines. The Allisons edited the post to remove the “Peeping Tom” language.

TripAdvisor then said they were posting in the wrong place.

A TripAdvisor representative told them to post it instead in a forum for Savage Mill, Md., where the restaurant was located. No such forum existed.

When the Allisons tried again, the TripAdvisor representative said, they were too late. It had been more than a year since they were at the restaurant.

Ultimately, the secret videotaping of guests was not the type of information TripAdvisor wanted to publish, the Allisons concluded from email they received in August 2015.

“As I stated before — TripAdvisor is not a news agency. If we were to allow all members to report all crimes, accidents, deaths, or injuries sustained in any destination, it would be impossible for our members to locate information that is actually travel-related and relevant to that destination,” a TripAdvisor staff member and moderator identified only as Jane wrote in an Aug. 26, 2015, email.

Vivek Krishnamurthy, an instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, said most user-review sites have issues with how they are moderated. From inadequate staffing to training and culture, problems persist.

A federal law passed in 1996 called the Communications Decency Act provided a broad shield of immunity to online companies that re-publish content from elsewhere. TripAdvisor is protected under section 230 of the act when reviewers say negative things about hotels and establishments, according to Krishnamurthy.

He believes the “badge” system is a good way of hedging against some of the risk of being held liable for injuries to travelers or to the hotels and restaurants that get bashed by bad reviews. 

“Once you start playing with the content, it becomes trickier,” said Krishnamurthy, also of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. “The more you go down the road of becoming an e-commerce site with reviews, the protections start to look shakier.

“There are lots of unanswered questions here,” he said. “We’re just at the beginning of seeing these kinds of suits emerge.”


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