Restaurants face an extortion threat: a bad rating on Google

In a new scam targeting restaurants, criminals are leaving negative ratings on restaurant Google pages as a bargaining chip for digital gift cards.

Restaurateurs from San Francisco to New York, many from Michelin-starred establishments, said in recent days that they have received a large number of one-star ratings on Google, without description or photos, from people who said they had never eaten at their restaurants. . . Shortly after the reviews, many owners said, they received emails from a person taking responsibility, requesting a $75 Google Play gift card to remove the ratings. If payment is not received, the message says, more bad grades will follow.

The text threat was the same in each email: “We sincerely apologize for our actions and don’t want to harm your business, but we have no choice.” The email went on to say that the sender lives in India and that the resale value of the gift card could provide several weeks of income for the sender’s family. The emails, from various Gmail accounts, requested payment to a Proton email account.

Kim Alter, chef and owner of Nightbird in San Francisco, said Google removed her one-star ratings after she tweeted the company to complain. Chinh Pham, owner of Sochi Saigonese Kitchen in Chicago, said one-star reviews of hers were removed after customers protested on social media.

“We don’t have a lot of money to fund these kinds of crazy things so they don’t happen to us,” Ms Pham said.

At Google, reviews of such abuse are monitored by teams of operators and analysts, as well as automated systems. A Google Maps spokeswoman said Monday that the platform was investigating the situation and had begun removing reviews that violated its policies.

“Our policies clearly state that reviews must be based on real experiences, and when we find policy violations, we take swift action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation,” he said.

But some restaurateurs said it’s been a challenge to reach someone at Google for help. As of Monday, some restaurants were still receiving negative reviews. Some said they continued to flag them, but that Google had yet to act.

“You’re kind of helpless,” said Julianna Yang, general manager of Sons & Daughters in San Francisco, who has taken charge of much of her restaurant’s response to the messages. “It looks like we’re just sitting around, and it’s no luck that these reviews can stop.”

For EL Ideas in Chicago, Google ruled Monday that one of the recent one-star ratings that the restaurant reported as false did not violate the platform’s policies and would not be removed, said William Talbott, manager of the restaurant.

“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 have urged restaurant owners to contact Google if they have been attacked and to report these crimes to local police departments as well as the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission. The commission advises companies not to pay fraudsters.

This type of extortion is considered a cybercrime, said Alan B. Watkins, cybersecurity consultant and author of “Creating a Cybersecurity Program for Small Businesses.” He said it can’t be prevented and the only thing companies can do is minimize the damage by reporting it to authorities and informing customers about fake reviews. The use of Google Play gift cards is probably an intentional choice, he added, because such transactions are difficult to track.

An avalanche of bad reviews can be disastrous for companies still reeling financially from the coronavirus pandemic. A lower average rating on Google, restaurateurs said, could make the difference in a customer deciding where to dine.

“These are part of the decision-making process, where people decide where to go for the first time,” said Jason Littrell, director of marketing for Overthrow Hospitality in New York City, which has several plant-based restaurants, including Avant Garden in the Town of the East. “People are willing to go above and beyond and pay more for the higher star rating.”

Mr. Littrell said scammers are “weaponizing ratings” and he feels there is little restaurant staff can do to stop him. The fake reviews have shown that “our reputation doesn’t belong to us anymore, which is really scary.”

At Roux in Chicago, staff have been responding to each review they believe to be false with a note that includes the text of the email threat. This has led scammers to send a follow-up email with stronger wording: “We can keep doing this indefinitely. Is $75 worth more to you than a loss to the business?”

“These are commercial terrorists,” said Steve Soble, owner of Roux. “And I hope it ends before it starts to hurt our business.”

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