An award-winning cafe near Perth in Scotland is considering calling in solicitors after it was plagued by at least 30 malicious reviews on TripAdvisor, all of which are thought to originate from the same person.
Mike Haggerton, owner of the Habitat Cafe in Aberfeldy, which was the national winner of Best Small Espresso in the UK in Beverage Standards Awards 2013, first noticed the problem with the reviews a few months ago, and has already had several removed successfully.
However he said that the malicious reviews had stepped up again in the past week, as the business undertook PR activity to capitalise on its award win.
The cafe received seven one-star reviews on the website on 24 November alone, along with five on 23 November, and four on 22 November. Some of them falsely implied that the business had closed, while many others made unfounded accusations of poor service.
The reviews were all posted from different usernames, supposedly from different locations, and all were added via mobile phone. All of them have subsequently been removed by TripAdvisor, following a complaint by Haggerton.
"They have been doing it for months. It is the same individual and we think we know who it is," said Haggerton. "We have had the police involved because in the last round of reviews, the reviewer started saying things which were bit worrying, talking about taking matters into his own hands, and it became a bit threatening. But there is very little the police can do about it."
"The reviewer has got a very particular writing style. We have refrained from naming them because it probably wouldn't help our case if we did - and I can't go into details. We are tired of it, and it is getting to the point where it is damaging the business. We are looking at speaking to a solicitor today or tomorrow to investigate a defamation case."
Haggerton said that part of his frustration with the case also stemmed from the fact that TripAdvisor only seemed to be able to act retrospectively in relation to the malicious reviews, removing them once they had been put up.
"Every time a review comes on, we report it and we provide them with information, and then almost 100% of the time it is eventually removed, but there is always that period of damage before it is removed. There is always a concern that we have lost customers and it has damaged the reputation of the business. It is not very pleasant, and it is upsetting for all of us," he said.
The vast majority of the reviews have been from users with only a single review - the malicious one - to their name. Haggerton said he has asked TripAdvisor whether or not it can block the mobile phone that the reviews are coming from, but so far without success.
In response to Caterer and Hotelkeeper, a spokesman for TripAdvisor said: "We are already investigating the complaint and we have removed a number of the reviews.
"What we do if a property has been targeted in that way, is we can keep an extra eye out for activity coming through and if the owner sees anything that he is in any way suspicious of, he can report it to us, as he did over the weekend, and we investigate it as soon as we can."
TripAdvisor has previously claimed that it has a sophisticated algorithm in place which allows it to weed out fake and malicious reviews before they appear. When asked why it had not worked in this case, the spokesman said: "We do have things we can do to stop this type of activity but we can't say what they are because what we don't want to do is give those people who are trying to post these kind of reviews a hint or a clue to the kind of techniques that we use.
"We also have a manual team that sits behind the algorithm. A lot of stuff will get filtered out by the system and anything that doesn't, our manual team will be able to follow up on and remove. Obviously we are always looking at ways to improve the system and improve filters and that is what we are constantly doing."
Meanwhile, Mike Haggerton added: "Where we are now is that it is still upsetting for us, but we are not letting it get to us."