Restaurants fall victim to one-star review extortion scam

For customers and business owners, good reviews are of paramount importance. In fact, according to a study by business consultancy Invesp, 88% of customers trust online reviews as much as a friend’s recommendation, so for most people looking to try a new place on their lunch break or finding the perfect date, the internet acts like a friend that most of us trust. That’s why a new scam hitting restaurant review pages across the country is causing serious concern.

Scammers have bombarded restaurant pages with one-star Google reviews in hopes of extorting money from unsuspecting businesses. From San Francisco to New York and many places in between, restaurant owners are seeing a sudden drop in their Google ratings – only to find that it’s not disgruntled customers leaving reviews, but a much more insidious party.

“We were going through our reviews on all platforms and noticed that we started getting a lot of these one-star reviews on Google,” said Aaron Bludorn, chef and co-owner of the eponymous restaurant Bludorn in Houston, NZ. Texas at TODAY Food. .

Bludorn said restaurant staff started noticing the bad reviews in the week just after the 4th of July weekend, which is around the time restaurants in other cities started to notice. fall victim to similar scams.

“We realized that was becoming a big issue here,” Bludorn said. He said staff were puzzled by the sudden influx of one-star ratings with no reviews, but noticed those bad reviews only showed up on Google.

Wondering what was going on, Bludorn asked around and said he had heard of a few friends with their own establishments in New York and Houston who also found themselves facing a similar experience. “And then we got the email,” he said.

“Hello. Unfortunately, we have left negative comments about your establishment. And will appear in the future, one review per day,” reads an email sent by the scammers to Bludorn under the pseudonym “Trí Toàn Nguyên”. . apologize for our actions, I would not want to harm your business, but we have no other choice. The fact is that we live in India and see no other way to survive.

The scammer then demanded that $75 be paid as a Google Play gift card, even providing a link to PayPal for their target to purchase. The scammers also explained what they were going to do with the money, claiming that with the proceeds from the sale of this gift card, their family would have “three weeks of income”.

Bludorn said the scammer knocked the restaurant’s Google rating from 4.8 to 4.5 in a week with only a few one-star reviews. An outpouring of community support resulted in around 100 five-star reviews in one day, which recovered the rating somewhat, but Bludorn’s rating only rose to 4.6, below the d origin it had before the start of the event. He said an effort by Google to remove fraudulent reviews resulted in the removal of most five-star reviews from real customers.

Bludhorn said he never contacted the scammer and subsequently received more threatening emails over time, mirroring the story of another restaurant hundreds of miles away and a few states away.

“What happened was Lucho woke up and saw we got a star,” Kelly Barbieri, co-owner of Lucho’s restaurant in San Francisco, told TODAY. Barbieri said Luciano “Lucho” Romero, the restaurant’s chef and co-owner, told him an anonymous Google user left them a bad review but didn’t leave a reason.

“So he started going back to all the clients we had throughout the day to try to figure out where we had gone wrong, because we’re just not used to having them,” Barbieri explained. . “We always want to try to do something good.”

After being unable to figure out the source of that first bad review, Barbieri said the next morning she and Romero woke up to more 1-star reviews — and later even more. Convinced they couldn’t have received so many bad reviews in a few days, Barbieri and Romero decided to report their issue to Google, who told them in an email reviewed by TODAY that the bad reviews all respected their guidelines and would not. t be deleted.

“Then the next morning two more arrived,” Barbieri said. “So now we were really trying to figure it out.”

Customer reviews for Luchos Restaurant that include several fraudulent one-star reviews. Courtesy of Kelly Barbieri/Luchos

Putting on his detective cap, Romero reviewed the first account that gave them a star to see where they were and if they had written any other reviews. He noticed that the account only had two reviews: one at Lucho’s and another restaurant in Los Angeles, hundreds of miles away. Curious, he checked other accounts and found similar city-hoppers.

“Others gave us a one-star rating and a restaurant in Texas, and then we saw one in Chicago. And so we couldn’t determine where those people were,” Barbieri said. is when they received the first letter on June 24th.

“The first one was like, ‘We’re so sorry we have to do this,'” Barbieri said, adding that the letters grew more and more threatening over time without payment. In each email, just like with Bludorn, the scammers demanded $75 to be paid in Google Play gift cards.

“We realize what we are doing is illegal and unjust. But we have no other choice,” reads an email from the scammers to Lucho’s. “Let’s close this case positively and forget about each other.”

In all of the letters, the scammers use remorseful language, saying “sorry” and “we apologize” at several points in their extortion attempt. In an email, the scammer even signed his financial threat against Lucho’s with “Best regards”.

Google eventually began mass removing Lucho’s bad reviews. said Barbieri; however, the recent good reviews have been removed along with the fraudulent ones and there still seems to be another issue with their reviews page. “Something on our page is frozen. People can’t post new reviews. They keep going, it looks like it’s posted and then it’s gone,” Barbieri said.

A recent review for Lucho's restaurant which no longer appears on Google.
A recent review for Lucho’s restaurant which no longer appears on Google.Courtesy of Kelly Barbieri/Luchos

Barbieri said Lucho’s hasn’t received a review, good or bad, in over a month and she believes even good reviews with photos aren’t left on her restaurant’s page. After Google removed some of the fraudulent reviews, Lucho’s rating fell back to 4.8, although Barbieri said she was unhappy that her Google reviews have stood at 183 reviews since June, although she says several people have since left positive reviews.

“We recently became aware of a scam by bad actors targeting businesses on Google with the threat of 1-star reviews unless they send money via gift cards,” a doorman said. -Google’s word in a statement to TODAY. “Our teams are working around the clock to thwart these attacks, remove fraudulent reviews, and protect business profiles that may have been affected.

The spokesperson also said that Google’s policies make it clear that reviews should be based on real experiences and that they use a combination of human operators and “cutting edge” technology to closely monitor fraudulent content 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “We encourage users and business owners to report suspicious activity to us, which helps us maintain the accuracy and reliability of information on Maps.”

If a business finds itself the target of a scam like this, Google suggests not paying for it; Instead, restaurant owners should report reviews on Google’s Business Profile Help page or contact Google Support through its Help Center to help remove content that violates the policy.

According to Google’s article on how its review moderation systems work, it said it has created strict content policies to ensure reviews are based on real experiences to avoid irrelevant and offensive comments. Google Business Profiles, blocking or removing over 95 million policies. – non-compliant reviews and over 1 million reviews reported directly to Google. The company adds that technicians and team members have disabled more than 1 million user accounts due to non-policy activities such as vandalism or online fraud.

According to Google, it has teams of trained operators, analysts and automated systems that use hundreds of clues to detect abusive behavior, such as a change in review patterns on a company and patterns of behavior implausible by the examiners.

Google also said that it helps to keep information on the site accurate and reliable, and that in the event of unusual activity or a risk of potential abuse, it regularly implements profile protections. company to monitor and prevent content that violates the policy. This may include removing related reviews or even temporarily blocking reviews, which may be what happened to Bludorn and Lucho.

Yet even though Google said it was taking actions ranging from content removal and account suspension to litigation, the immediate effect of the situation was felt at both Bludorn, Lucho and beyond. .

“Who knows how many people were searching because out of all the reviews we have, it’s Google that’s so egregious, because people couldn’t search for reviews at all and still find our Google rating,” Bludorn said. .

Bludorn said his current rating of 4.6 is two-tenths of a point lower than his pre-scam rating. It may not seem like much, but according to marketing firm Bright Local, consumers’ use of Google to review local businesses has increased from 63% in 2020 to 81% in 2021, so every review counts for the viability of these companies.

“When you search for restaurants on Google Maps and see the name of the restaurant, the rating is right next to it,” he said.

“Because people rely on it. Right?” added Barbier. “If you haven’t seen a restaurant review in over a month, you might not go there. You can go somewhere else.

Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement