In a latest scam targeting restaurants, criminals are leaving negative rankings on restaurants’ Google pages as a bargaining chip to extort digital gift cards.
Restaurateurs from San Francisco to Recent York, many from establishments with Michelin stars, said in recent days that they’ve received a blitz of one-star rankings on Google, with no description or photos, from people they said have never eaten at their restaurants. Soon after the reviews, many homeowners said, they received emails from an individual claiming responsibility and requesting a $75 Google Play gift card to remove the rankings. If payment just isn’t received, the message says, more bad rankings will follow.
The text threat was the identical in each email: “We sincerely apologize for our actions, and wouldn’t wish to harm your corporation but we now have no other alternative.” The e-mail 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 several Gmail accounts, requested payment to a Proton mail account.
Kim Alter, the chef and owner at Nightbird in San Francisco, said Google removed her one-star rankings after she tweeted the corporate to complain. Chinh Pham, an owner of Sochi Saigonese Kitchen in Chicago, said her one-star reviews were taken down after customers raised an outcry on social media.
“We don’t have plenty of money to fund this sort of crazy thing from happening to us,” Ms. Pham said.
At Google, teams of operators and analysts, in addition to automated systems, monitor the reviews for such abuses. 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 reviews should be based on real experiences, and after we find policy violations, we take swift motion starting from content removal to account suspension and even litigation,” she said.
But some restaurateurs said it’s been a challenge to succeed in someone at Google to assist them. As of Monday, some restaurants were still receiving the negative reviews. Some said that they’ve continued to flag them, but that Google had not yet acted.
“You’re just type of defenseless,” said Julianna Yang, the final manager of Sons & Daughters in San Francisco, who has taken on much of her restaurant’s response to the messages. “It looks like we’re just sitting geese, and it’s out of luck that these reviews might stop.”
For EL Ideas in Chicago, Google ruled Monday that one in all the recent one-star rankings the restaurant reported as fake didn’t violate the platform’s policies and wouldn’t be removed, said William Talbott, a manager on the restaurant.
“That is one other nightmare for us to handle,” he said. “I’m losing my mind. I don’t know how you can get us out of this.”
Law enforcement officials have urged restaurant owners to contact Google in the event that they’ve been targeted, and to report these crimes to their local police departments, in addition to the F.B.I. and the Federal Trade Commission. The commission advises businesses to not pay the scammers.
Any such extortion is taken into account a cybercrime, said Alan B. Watkins, a cybersecurity consultant and the creator of “Making a Small Business Cybersecurity Program.” He said it could possibly’t be prevented, and that the one thing businesses can do is minimize damage by reporting it to the authorities and informing customers concerning the bogus reviews. Using Google Play gift cards is probably going an intentional alternative, he added, because such transactions are difficult to trace.
An onslaught of bad reviews may be disastrous for businesses still recovering financially from the coronavirus pandemic. A lower average rating on Google, restaurateurs said, could make the difference for a customer deciding where to dine.
“These are a part of the decision-making process, where people determine where to go for the primary time,” said Jason Littrell, the marketing director at Overthrow Hospitality in Recent York City, which has several plant-based restaurants, including Avant Garden within the East Village. “Persons are willing to go further and pay more for the upper star rating.”
Mr. Littrell said that the scammers are “weaponizing the rankings,” and that he feels that restaurant staff can’t do much to stop it. The phony reviews have proved that “our fame doesn’t really belong to us anymore, which is basically scary.”
At Roux in Chicago, the staff has been responding to every review it believes is fake with a note that features the text from the e-mail threat. This has prompted the scammers to send a more strongly worded follow-up email: “We will keep doing this indefinitely. Is $75 value more to you than a loss to the business?”
“These are business terrorists,” said Steve Soble, an owner of Roux, “and I hope it ends before it starts to break our business.”