Restaurants Face Extortion Threat: Poor Google Ranking

In a new scam targeting restaurants, criminals leave negative ratings on restaurant pages on Google as a bargaining chip to extort digital gift cards.

Restaurateurs from San Francisco to New York, many Michelin-starred establishments, have said in recent days that they have received a bunch of one-star ratings on Google with no description or photos from people who they say have never eaten in their restaurants. . Shortly after the reviews, many owners said they received emails from a person claiming responsibility and requesting a $75 Google Play gift card to remove ratings. If payment is not received, the message says, more bad grades will follow.

The text of the threat was the same in every email: “We sincerely apologize for our actions and would not like to harm your business, but we have no other choice.” The email went on to say that the sender lives in India and that the resale value of the gift card could provide weeks of income for the sender’s family. Emails from multiple Gmail accounts requested payment to a Proton mail account.

Kim Alter, chef and restaurant owner Night-bird in San Francisco, said Google removed her one-star ratings after she tweeted a complaint about the company. Chin Pham, owner Sochi Saigon cuisine in Chicago, said her one-star reviews were removed after customers raised an outcry on social media.

“We don’t have a lot of money to fund crazy things like this, no matter what happens to us,” she said. Pham said.

At Google, groups of operators and analysts, as well as automated systems, monitor reviews for such violations. On Monday, a Google Maps spokesperson said the platform is looking into the situation and has begun removing reviews that violate its policies.

“Our policy is clear that reviews must be based on real experience, and when we detect policy violations, we take swift action, from content removal to account suspension and even legal action,” she said.

But some restaurateurs said it was difficult for them to contact someone from Google to help them. As of Monday, some restaurants were still receiving negative reviews. Some have said they keep flagging them, but Google hasn’t taken any action yet.

“You’re just kind of defenseless,” said Julianne Young, general manager sons and daughters in San Francisco, which took over most of its restaurant’s responses to messages. “Looks like we’re just sitting ducks and we’re unlucky that these reviews can stop.”

Per EL Ideas In Chicago on Monday, Google ruled that one of the restaurant’s recent one-star ratings, which was found to be fake, did not violate platform policy and would not be removed, restaurant manager William Talbott said.

“This is another nightmare that we have to deal with,” he said. “I’m losing my mind. I don’t know how to get us out of this.”

Law enforcement officials urged restaurant owners to contact Google if they are targeted and report these crimes to local police departments as well as FBI and Federal Trade Commission. The commission advises businesses not to pay scammers.

This type of extortion is considered cybercrime, said Alan B. Watkins, a cybersecurity consultant and author of Building a Small Business Cybersecurity Program. He said there was no way to prevent this and that the only thing businesses could do was to minimize the damage by reporting it to authorities and informing customers of fake reviews. He added that the use of Google Play gift cards is likely a deliberate choice as such transactions are difficult to trace.

The onslaught of bad reviews can be disastrous for a business. still recovering financially from the coronavirus pandemic. According to restaurateurs, a lower average ranking on Google could make a difference for a customer deciding where to dine.

“It’s part of the decision-making process where people decide where to go the first time,” said Jason Littrell, director of marketing at Overthrow hospitality in New York, where there are several plant-based restaurants, including Avant Garden in the East Village. “People are willing to go further and pay more for a higher rating.”

mr. Littrell said the scammers were “arming the ratings” and that he felt there was little the restaurant staff could do to stop it. The fake reviews proved that “our reputation is not really ours anymore, which is really scary.”

AT RU in Chicago, employees responded to every review they thought was fake with a note that included threatening email text. This prompted the scammers to send an email with harsher language: “We can keep doing this indefinitely. Is $75 worth more to you than a business loss?”

“These are business terrorists,” said Steve Soble, owner of Roux. “And I hope this ends before it hurts our business.”