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Scammers Attempt Extortion With Negative Google Reviews

Late last week, Le Pavillon restaurant general manager Jon Fitzgerald noticed that the upscale French restaurant in New York had received a few one-star reviews on Google in a single day.

This was highly unusual for the much-loved seafood concept operated by Daniel Boulud’s Dinex Group. Reviewers gave no comments – just one star. Fitzgerald immediately suspected that the reviews weren’t coming from legitimate customers, and his fears were quickly confirmed.

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A day or two later, the restaurant received an email from a Bernardo Souza asking for a $75 Google Play gift card or else the bad reviews would continue.

Fitzgerald said he knew it was a scam and did not respond to the email. By then, it had become clear that restaurants across the country had been targeted, impacting concepts ranging from Nightbird in San Francisco to Sochi Saigonese Kitchen in Chicago.

Travis Lenig, owner and chef of the five-year-old Field & Tides concept in Houston, said his restaurant was also among those affected by the extortion attempt. In his case, the restaurant received 20 or 30 one-star reviews, with no comment, before the threatening email arrived.

Initially, Lenig said Google was not helpful. “It was clearly a total scam, and I was like, ‘whatever’ and ignored it,” he said. “But then I noticed that the business went down a bit.

“I started reporting them, and Google was responding and saying none of them violated our policy, so the review will stand. And I didn’t know what to do,” Lenig said. “And it wasn’t just us, it was several in the Houston area. »

Lenig enlisted his publicist, who launched a social media campaign to let diners know what was going on. And when the media picked up the story, both nationally and locally, Google finally seemed to recognize that the bad reviews weren’t legit – although the reviews weren’t removed until Thursday, he said. he declares.

Fitzgerald du Pavillon turned to Merchant Centric for help, a technical service that manages customer engagement and monitors online reputation. Dinex Group had previously worked with the company to closely monitor restaurant feedback.

“They were able to help us contact Google and get in touch with representatives, and ultimately get the reviews removed,” he said.

Those one-star no-comment reviews keep trickling in, Fitzgerald noted, but now Google seems to be removing them almost immediately, perhaps in part because of media coverage.

“I think it’s great that the media is drawing attention to this, so that other customers and consumers are aware,” he said.

Still, Field & Tides’ Lenig said he wouldn’t be surprised to see similar scams pop up again.

“The scam in our company is rabid. There are all kinds of things people do to get free stuff,” he said.

Connie Shelton, director of customer success at Merchant Centric, recommended that restaurants develop a reputation crisis management plan, before a crisis occurs.

Having a platform to host all the review sites is helpful, she said. And restaurants need to understand which review sites allow them to disable public reviews until a crisis is over.

If you suspect a scam, Shelton said, “Stay calm and rational. Don’t allow yourself to become defensive or combative. Use your anxious, panicked energy to take action for good by flagging negative reviews for deletion and/or writing thoughtful responses to defuse the situation and prevent it from going viral and impacting your sales.

In San Francisco, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association also said it was working with Google, urging the tech company to put in place a mechanism to review and remove clearly fraudulent reviews. The association recommended that restaurants continue to monitor and report reviews that appear illegitimate, using their Google business page.

The GGRA also added this advice:

  • Do not panic. Scammers take advantage of panicked reactions.
  • Document everything. Do not delete the extortion email/attempt.
  • Talk to your peers to see if other people have been targeted.
  • Post on social media to draw attention to the scam and alert your customers.
  • If you want to, publicly respond to reviews so customers see them for what they are: a scam.
  • Report to the appropriate authorities, including local police, the FBI and the Federal Trade Commission.
  • Don’t pay the scammers.

UPDATE: This article has been updated with new information.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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