Service Seeking has been fined $600,000 over 17,000 reviews posted on the online tasking platform that were written by the companies that completed the work, but which were made to look like they were written by customers.

The Federal Court this week ordered the company, which had over 1.5 million users as of the end of 2018, to pay the penalty for making false or misleading representations regarding the reviews, after the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) launched legal proceedings 18 months ago.

Service Seeking offers a platform where users can look for quotes for jobs including gardening, building or cleaning services from businesses that are registered with the site.

The company offered a Fast Feedback feature following the completion of a job, where the company that undertook the work could use a template to draft their own review and choose a star rating for their own work.

This draft review would then be sent to the user who requested the work, but if they didn’t respond within three days, the company’s own review would then be posted publicly on their Service Seeking profile.

This service was used to create about 21,000 reviews from 12 July 2016 to 29 November 2018, with about 17,000 of those being automatically published after being written by the company without any input from the customer.

One such review posted on the platform was: “[Company name] did a plumbing and gasfitting job for me in Broome and the job was completed on time, to a professional standard and with good communication.”

Despite how the review reads, this was written by the company that carried out the work, rather than the customer.

The company has now admitted that it falsely represented that these reviews were written by customers and made a joint submission to the court with the ACCC.

The Court also made orders for injunctions, corrective notices and the implementation of a compliance program.

“Service Seeking engaged in a systematic course of conduct for the self-interested purpose of increasing the attractiveness of its website to businesses and customers in a manner which it must have known would give rise to numerous instances of misleading conduct,” Federal Court Justice John Jackson said in the ruling.

“This was an abuse of the trust that customers can be inferred to have placed in the site, the existence of which can be inferred from the number of active customers who posted one or more jobs.”

ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said the review feature created a “false impression of the number of favourable reviews and the star rating” of businesses on the platform.

“Consumers are increasingly relying on online reviews as a way of making informed purchasing decisions,” Rickard said.

“Deceiving them about the authenticity of the reviews in my view is showing contempt for consumers.

“Online reviews need to accurately reflect the independent views and feedback of genuine customers, or the businesses publishing them risk breaching the Australian Consumer Law.”

It’s not the first time a tech company has found itself in hot water over dodgy reviews, with startup HealthEngine last year found to have removed about 17,000 reviews from its platform and altered a further 3,000 between March 2015 and March 2018.