A top consumer watchdog is assessing a news report claiming that TripAdvisor had deleted posts by travelers who spoke of rapes, blackouts and injuries that they said they suffered at some resorts in Mexico, according to a Nov. 17 letter by Federal Trade Commission Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen.
Published earlier this month, the investigative report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel documented several instances of the travel review website apparently removing firsthand accounts by customers who said they were sexually assaulted while on vacation. One woman told the Journal Sentinel that in 2010, she had been raped by a security guard in a resort complex. Four years after that, another woman said she was sexually assaulted at the same resort, after she and her husband suddenly blacked out in broad daylight after only a few drinks, according to the report.
In both cases, the women said TripAdvisor blocked their warning messages: The first was taken down by a TripAdvisor moderator who deemed the post in violation of the company’s “family friendly” guidelines; the other was labeled by the company as “hearsay,” the report said. The 2010 TripAdvisor post was republished last month, according to the Journal Sentinel, but it went back online chronologically, alongside other posts from December 2010, on the forum's 2,608th page. Dozens more travelers have come forward with their own accounts since the initial investigation, according to the Journal Sentinel. The newspaper unearthed the claims about TripAdvisor after it began to investigate the mysterious death of a Wisconsin college student who was vacationing in Mexico this summer.
Prompted by the reports about TripAdvisor, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) wrote to the FTC this month, urging the agency to investigate the company to determine whether its practices violate consumer protection laws. Baldwin also noted that the allegations of censorship on TripAdvisor's platform are especially worrisome, because the company has a financial incentive to maximize positive reviews and play down accounts of troubling experiences, as its revenue relies in part on hotel bookings.
“The practice of limiting or removing reviews that detail unsafe conditions could put future travelers, who look to TripAdvisor for accurate information, at risk,” she told The Washington Post in a statement. “I am concerned this may be a case of prioritizing profits over providing an open, honest forum for traveler reviews that its users expect.”
The FTC declined to comment on whether it is investigating the company. But in response to Baldwin's letter, Ohlhausen wrote, “I assure you that the Commission will consider the information you have provided carefully to determine whether enforcement or other action, such as additional business guidance, is appropriate.”
Mary Engle, a top official in the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC, said in a statement Tuesday: “Claims that a user review website makes about its services may violate the FTC Act if they are false or misleading. Whether taking down negative reviews violates the FTC Act would depend on the particular facts.”
TripAdvisor said it has not been contacted by the FTC and is not aware of an investigation. “TripAdvisor is committed to ensuring our users have complete and accurate information to plan their travel. This is especially true in matters related to health and safety,” the company said. TripAdvisor also said there are published reviews that include “horrific experiences by travelers” that were selectively left out of news coverage about the company blocking such posts.
Since the Journal Sentinel report was published, TripAdvisor began placing warning notifications on the review pages of hotels where rape and other safety incidents have been reported. The company has also altered its customer review system, allowing people who have had their posts removed to appeal the takedown.