How I uncovered problems in reviews, online travel agencies (Kayak, Momondo), chargeback fraud, and regulation
Fake Reviews & Online Scamming
You can't trust online reviews. I had the unfortunate experience of learning about the state of fake online reviews in early 2020, as COVID-19 causes multiple travel plans to be cancelled when countries closed their borders and flights stopped. I had booked with Kayak.com many times before and had no issues. I had not needed any customer support and didn't miss any of my flights. Because of my past experiences where I hadn’t had issues, I suggested my parents buy their tickets from Chicago to Moscow via Kayak.
The company we booked with, Ovago.com, has the business model of an Online Travel Agency (OTA). Online travel agencies sell lots of tickets and get access to better prices from airlines, making their prices more competitive than booking directly and increasing their profit. Or at least this is how I understood it. I didn't know much about the industry at the time so my vague ideas of OTAs seemed harmless. These were companies Kayak had chosen to work with and as a US company Kayak wouldn't work with scammers, or so I thought.
We booked the trip and in the beginning of March closely watched the news as country after country closed their borders. One of the legs of my parents journey was cancelled and we got the email from the airline saying the flight would be cancelled. We were eligible for a 100% refund according to airline and government policy, so we thought all we had to do to get our money back was wait. In fact, we even hoped that we would be able to reschedule the flight via the Online Travel Agency to take another route as not all of the possible routes to Russia were closed at the time.
My father and my brother ended up calling the company to see what they were planning to do about our trip. However, they never were able to get ahold of anyone. Eventually, as the flight was going to happen a few days later, I started to dig into what was happening. At first I called the company in the early morning, US hours, but didn't get ahold of anyone. I read through their entire website to figure out how to solve our problem ourselves. Support seemed very busy.
Figuring things out
The next day I tried again but in the middle of the day (Russia time because I was in Russia) and after 2 calls I finally got someone on the phone! He looked into my flight and informed me that they planned to charge $150 per ticket to get the full free refund from the airline. I was outraged! What kind of travel agency would charge you rediculous fees when your flight was cancelled because of a pandemic? I couldn't believe Kayak had accidentally started working with a company with such poor ethics.
I found information on the company everywhere I could online. The company seemed to be based out of Dallas according to their website. Their support seemed to work in Europen time, I couldn't get ahold of anyone except at 1am to 5am US time which seemed the support was abroad. Then I found it, almost all the staff at Ovago.com worked in Moldova. The $150 per ticket and staff in Moldova seemed very strange, so I dug further. I read through all their negative reviews on TrustPilot and found that many people had this experience before, getting charged anywhere from $75 to $300 for free refunds, changing seats, or changing dates ($150 for Ovago + the $150 airline change fee!). This seemed really horrible, so how did they have a 4.7 rating on TrustPilot? I read through the pages of reviews very carefully and found they had numerous reviews that were written in poor English and had the same basic script. Many reviews had a reviewer who had only given one review, for "Ovago.com".
"Elvis (They refer to this imaginary support person named after the famous singer quite regularly) answered all my questions and was able to change my flight easily and quickly in 5 minutes. I am glad I booked with Ovago and will do so again"
Given my real experience with Ovago, I found these reviews very unlikely to be true, so I tried to count how many true positive reviews there were. I couldn't find any that seemed realistic, in fact it looked like they were all paid for.
Contacting TrustPilot (Company Paid Review Website)
Since Ovago had a ton of reviews that couldn't be real, I decided I would help improve TrustPilot but reporting the fake reviews. I sent them an email expecting a reply within a day. 1 day, 1 week, 1 month later I was still waiting. After something like 2 months - I had completely forgot about the email, they emailed by saying "They had looked into my ticket and and now my ticket was closed."
I was very skeptical they had done anything, the page was the same as before, fake reviews everywhere and nothing noticably changed. I emailed them back saying I didn't believe they had looked into anything. I got a response back saying that they needed to be "very thorough". This set off red flags for me and I looked into their business model. Sure enough, companies that paid TrustPilot got special priviledges and it appears that it's very very difficult to get fake reviews removed unless they happen to put the company in a bad light. Basically, TrustPilot was not a user review site but a marketing site paid for by the companies. Their consumer website showed nothing about this, toting their compliance process, but their business facing site showed the truth.
For a Scandanavian company I was quite shocked they had no problems. I reached out to some of their investors to let them know the company was a fake review website, but I didn't get a response.
I had my brother look into the bad reviews of other companies listed on Kayak to try to figure out if there were any doing the same thing as Ovago, and found something quite shocking. Momondo and Kayak (owned by the same company) was all doing the same thing, charging crazy fees for services you could get for free through the airline. Many of their staff were based in developing countries and used aggressive sales tactics to get their North American and European customers to pay crazy fees for almost no real service.
I also found that many of these firms had staff who had previously worked at Kayak, so not only was there a cozy relationship between Kayak, who in their terms takes no responsibility for the actions of the partners they refer you to, and the companies that make them all their revenue. These institutionalized scams using developing country tourist hawking sales tactics seemed out of place for a publicly traded company.
Newspapers had bigger priorities
I emailed the New York Times and The Guardian I found nobody was interested in following up on the story. It appears nobody is watching these companies. Fake reviews are for practical purposes legal, nobody is watching although technically in the US, Canada, UK, EU, and Australia they are illegal (and probably plenty of other places). If we don't enforce our law, people realize they can use these practices and rip off more and more customers with impunity. The Guardian had some articles on fake reviews being a problem (although specifically about TrustPilot, a Danish company being central to this practice with others).
Kayak is owned by the publicly traded company under Booking Holdings Inc. (BKNG) I wasn't able to find many negative articles on Kayak which was pretty strange. There were some forums posts on TripAdvisor saying only idiots booked with Kayak or an Online Travel Agency, but these posts would be hard to find by customers who Google for "ovago reviews" or "justfly reviews".
In experiencing this problem myself, I came to the following conclusion.
1) Fake reviews are widespread online and there is almost no enforcement
* Companies like FakeSpot will help get rid of likely fake reviews, but it seems there is limited verification that the reviews are by real customers by the better actors Yelp, Google to fradulent practices by TrustPilot and Reviews.com.
* There have been limited enforcement actions against fake reviews in practice.
2) Online Travel Agencies (and probably a lot of other online companies) behave very poorly without any real oversight or consumer protection.
* When you report these company to the FTC they send you newsletters about how to avoid scams.
3) When I see TrustPilot from now on I see it as a red flag. Any company that needs to "manage" reviews is probably doing something shady. You can't necessarily trust Amazon, Yelp, or Google reviews either. Nobody is really verifying real people are leaving these reviews. I haven't tried their compliance processes, although I'm more optimistic I'm not exactly sure how they verify there are real reviews.
4) You need to be very careful what bank you get a credit card with because chargeback practices very. RBC in Canada seems to not even open chargebacks according to some reports (not sure how common this is), Capital One was pretty helpful for me, and Chase blindly listened to fradulent claims that my parents were a "no-show" on their flight that was cancelled that hadn't happened yet...
The internet is the wild west, and governments seems to be doing very little. At a lot of levels, from banking, reviews, to public companies, it appears a lot more is legal or possible than I was aware of. We have a major trust problem with online retailers, and opportunistic people are taking advantage of consumers trust in the protections and norms they think exist to help them. We should probably be as careful on the internet as we are in developing country's tourist market. There are lots of bad actors, and who we believe are our protectors are letting them roam freely.