An award-winning café-operator near Perth fears for his mental health and future of his business following an on-going campaign of abuse from one reviewer on TripAdvisor.
Mike Haggerton and his business, the Habitat Café in Aberfeldy, have been the target of around 45 malicious reviews over a period of 18 months. The campaign of abuse is believed to be the work of one individual who worked at the business for a period of three weeks in 2013.
"We had to let him go during his probationary period as he was absent so many times during the time he was employed by us," said Haggerton. "The negative reviews started to appear after that."
All written in a distinctive rambling fashion, using poor grammar, the one-star reviews are posted using different usernames, supposedly from different locations. They stand out amongst a host of favourable reviews, which have primarily awarded the café four or five stars.
After The Caterer reported the abuse directed at the Habitat Café, about a year ago, Haggerton said the reviews have continued to appear, despite appeals to TripAdvisor to employ the sophisticated means it has to intervene and block them from being published. TripAdvisor has now agreed to remove the reviews, but it often takes weeks to do so.
The matter has also been reported to the police, who Haggerton said "refuse" to act because TripAdvisor is a US-based company and it therefore would be too costly to do so.
Haggerton has considered taking legal action, but was dissuaded from doing so after the owners of the Tigh na Cheo guest house in Kinlochleven lost a legal case to obtain details from TripAdvisor of writers of "fictitious" reviews in a bid to sue the authors. The Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled that it had no jurisdiction to act with regards a global company like TripAdvisor, which is based in Massachusetts in the US.
"This led us to avoid wasting money on legal advice, as without legal disclosure of the reviewer's identity we cannot make a claim," said Haggerton. "This seems to me to be an extremely worrying gap in my legal right to protection against defamation."
While Haggerton cannot assess the impact that the malicious reviews are having on the café, he is confident that they are damaging the business' reputation and preventing customers who are new to Aberfeldy from visiting.
"As a small family business, this is very upsetting," he explained. "I'm losing sleep and it is affecting my mental health. I seriously wonder if this could close us down."
James Kay, a TripAdvisor spokesperson, said as a result of a sophisticated tracking system, a number of reviews submitted for the Habitat Café that have not met the review site's guidelines have been prevented from being published.
"In addition to our tracking system, we do allow property owners to report published reviews that they feel don't meet our guidelines," he explained. "Our content specialists investigate every report we receive, and if we find evidence that a review does not meet our guidelines we will take action.
"We are very confident in the systems and processes we have in place, and we remain committed to fighting fraud aggressively."
The Habitat Café is the only establishment in Scotland and one of only seven in the UK to be awarded the five cup accreditation from the Beverage Standards Association (BSA). It was also awarded the BSA Overall Award at the 2014 Best Drink & Cup Accreditation Awards, held at the Midland hotel, Manchester, last week.
Martyn Herriott, chairman of the BSA, said the five cup accreditation implied the highest standards of hospitality and customer service experience. "I have personally assessed the Habitat Café and found Mike to be doing a superb job. Local customers were happy to give me glowing reports about the business."