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Hotel guests blackmailing owners with threat of negative reviews?

Some hotels and restaurants say customers are using the power of sites like TripAdvisor to finagle free benefits.

Should hotels just let negative reviewers gush their worst? US City Traveler/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

The Web gives people the opportunity to display their dark aspects to the full.

Anonymity lets you say what you like to whomever you like. And woe betide if someone makes you mad, or even just a touch uncomfortable.

The hammer and sickle of your rage can be cast toward them before they've even realized what they've done.

It seems, though, that some enterprising humans have decided to use their newfound online power in Mafia-like ways.

According to the Telegraph, British hotels and restaurants are noticing a marked increase in blackmail threats. No, people aren't waltzing up to reception areas and maitres d', putting on a threatening face and making as if they have a gun in their pockets.

Instead, they apparently suggest that unless the establishment doesn't treat them in an exaggeratedly accommodating way, they'll post a negative review to a site like TripAdvisor. They allegedly demand upgrades in hotels, or free meals in restaurants.

Martin Couchman, the deputy chief executive of the British Hospitality Association, told the Telegraph: "People will either attempt to blackmail during the meal, or sometimes, more worryingly, people who have not even been to the restaurant will post a bad review to try to get a free meal, or a free stay in a hotel's case."

The latter seems an especially twisted ploy. Do they really think that the hotel or restaurant wouldn't check to see if they actually stayed or ate there?

It seems that some people are so brazen that they tell the establishment's staff that they are "senior TripAdvisor reviewers," as if this is but one step removed from being a Michelin inspector, the local chief of police, or David Beckham.

Hotels and restaurants are often in fear of the one negative review that will be shared and reshared until it somehow becomes definitive. Every establishment has an off-night. Just as every establishment has customers whom Lucifer would not have stay at his place.

One of the essences of online reviews is, to my mind, that they aren't worth reading. However, if you happen upon one, consider the source and the fact that no one is, in fact, like you. Even if that person had a bad time, it doesn't mean you will.

I have been to hotels and restaurants that I discovered subsequently had enjoyed terrible Yelp or TripAdvisor reviews. Yet I had a very pleasant experience at these places.

It's hard for some establishments, often working on razor-thin margins, to ignore the threats. Restaurant owners can be so shocked at what was written online about their meals or service. Their initial instinct is to contact the customer and fight back, or to publish a rebuttal.

Sometimes that works. Sometimes, owners get so angry that they take reviewers to court. Earlier this year, a Virginia court ordered Yelp to reveal the names of seven people who posted anonymous, negative reviews of a carpet cleaning company.

The most confident of hotel and restaurant owners, though, will know that their business stands or falls on its word of mouth. One or two bad reviews won't have a deadly effect if so many others are glowing and the establishment has a reputation for excellence.

There are spiteful, tasteless, vindictive, sneaky, half-witted, and manipulative people in the world.

I have a feeling these sorts are more likely to post negative online reviews than anyone else.