Google One Star Review targeting restaurant cheats

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

Diners from San Francisco to New York, many of them Michelin-starred establishments, have said in recent days that they’ve received a flurry of one-star reviews on Google, without descriptions or photos, from people who say they’ve never eaten at their restaurants. Several owners said shortly after the reviews, that they received emails from someone claiming responsibility asking for a $75 Google Play gift card to remove the reviews. The message says that if payment is not received, more bad reviews will follow.

The text threat was the same in every email: “We sincerely apologize for our actions, we wouldn’t want 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 several weeks of income for the sender’s family. Emails, from multiple Gmail accounts, requested payment to the Proton Mail account.

Kim Alter, chef and owner of Nightbird in San Francisco, said Google removed its one-star ratings after she tweeted the company to file a complaint. Chinh Pham, owner of Sochi Saigonese Kitchen in Chicago, said its one-star ratings were canceled after customers sparked a protest on social media.

“We don’t have a lot of money to fund the kind of crazy things that happen to us,” Ms Pham said.

At Google, operator and analyst teams, as well as automated systems, monitor reviews for such violations. A Google Maps spokeswoman said Monday that the platform is investigating the situation and has begun removing comments that violate 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 suspensions and even litigation,” she said.

But some restaurateurs said it was hard to find someone at Google to help them. As of Monday, some restaurants were still receiving negative reviews. Some said they continued to report them, but Google has yet to act.

“You’re just kind of isolated,” said Julianna Yang, the general manager of Sons & Daughters in San Francisco, which has received many of her restaurant’s responses to messages. “It looks like we’re just ducks, and fortunately these reviews may stop.”

For EL Ideas in Chicago, Google ruled on Monday that one of the recent one-star ratings reported by the restaurant as fake does not violate the platform’s policies and will not be removed, said William Talbot, the restaurant’s manager.

“This is another nightmare we have to deal with,” he said. “I am 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 targeted, and to report these crimes to local police departments, as well as the FBI and Federal Trade Commission. The commission advises companies not to pay fraudsters.

Alan B. Watkins, a cybersecurity consultant and author of Creating a Cybersecurity Program for Small Businesses, said this type of extortion is a cybercrime. He said it couldn’t be prevented, and that the only thing companies could do was reduce the damage by reporting it to the authorities and informing customers of the bogus reviews. He added that using Google Play gift cards is likely an intentional choice, as such transactions are difficult to track.

The onslaught of bad reviews could be disastrous for companies still financially recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurateurs said a lower average rating on Google could make a difference for a customer in deciding where to dine.

said Jason Littrell, marketing director for Overthrow Hospitality in New York City, which has several vegetarian restaurants, including Avant Garden in the East Village. “People are willing to go ahead and pay more for a higher star rating.”

Mr Littrell said the scammers are “using labeling as a weapon”, and he feels the restaurant staff can do little to stop him. False reviews prove that “our reputation doesn’t really belong to us anymore, which is really scary”.

At Roux in Chicago, employees would respond to every review they thought was fake with a note that included the text from the email threat. This prompted the scammers to send a stern follow-up email: “We can keep doing this indefinitely. Is it worth $75 more than lost business?”

“These are commercial terrorists, and I hope this is over before it starts hurting our business,” said Steve Sobel, owner of Roux.

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