U.K. Competition Watchdog Says Booking Sites May Be Breaking Law

(Bloomberg) -- Hotel booking sites are again coming under scrutiny, three years after U.K. regulators closed an antitrust probe into contracts that may have fixed room rates.

The U.K. Competition and Markets Authority told hotel-booking websites on Thursday that some uses of discount claims, hidden charges, pressure selling and online search rankings could break consumer protection law. It didn’t identify the websites.

The regulator is turning to consumer-protection law to make the demands after it abandoned an earlier antitrust probe into whether Expedia, Booking.com and InterContinental hotels had made agreements about how much to charge. An appeal court blocked the regulator’s decision to accept remedies from the companies in 2014.

The CMA said it was concerned that customers might be rushed into booking hotels by claims about how many people were looking at the same room or how many rooms were left. Search results on booking sites could be influenced by irrelevant factors such as commissions that hotels pay to the sites, it said.

The regulator has sent warning letters to a range of sites asking them to review their terms and practices to make sure they are fair and comply with consumer protection law. It can get agreements from the companies involved to change their business practices or take them to court.

Andrea Coscelli, head of the CMA, said it was important that customers didn’t feel pressured into making a booking by misleading statements.

“That’s why we’re now demanding that sites think again about how they’re presenting information to their customers and make sure they’re complying with the law,” Coscelli said.

Separately, Booking.com settled antitrust probes in France, Sweden and Italy in 2015 by agreeing to drop clauses that stopped hotels from offering lower room prices on competing online travel services. German regulators also warned the website over its best-price deals with hotels in 2015. EU antitrust agencies published a study monitoring online travel agencies’ use of pricing clauses with hotels last year.

The regulator opened the investigation into whether booking sites were breaking consumer law in October 2017, saying it was concerned that a lack of clarity and accuracy on sites could mislead people.

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