To customers and business owners alike, good reviews are of paramount importance. In fact, according to research by business consulting company Invesp, 88% of customers trust online reviews as much as they would trust a friend’s recommendation, so for most people looking to try a new place on their lunch break or find the perfect date spot, the internet acts as a buddy most of us trust. That’s why a new scam hitting the ratings pages of restaurants across the country is causing deep concern.
Scammers have been bombarding restaurant pages with one-star Google reviews in the hopes of extorting money from unsuspecting businesses. From San Francisco to New York City and many places in between, restaurant owners are finding their Google rating suddenly drop — only to discover that it’s not dissatisfied customers that are leaving the reviews, but a much more insidious party.
“We were just perusing our reviews across all the platforms and we noticed that we started getting a lot of these one star reviews on Google,” Aaron Bludorn, chef and co-owner of the eponymous restaurant Bludorn in Houston, Texas, told TODAY Food.
Bludorn said restaurant staff started to notice the bad reviews rolling in the week right after Fourth of July weekend, which is around the time that restaurants in other cities started falling victim to similar scams.
“We realized that this was becoming a pretty big deal here,” Bludorn said. He said the staff was perplexed by the sudden influx of one-star ratings with no comments attached to them, but noticed that these bad reviews were only appearing on Google.
Wondering what was going on, Bludorn asked around and said he heard from a few friends with their own establishments in New York and Houston who also found themselves facing a similar experience. “And then we received the email,” he said.
"Hello. Unfortunately negative feedback about your establishment has been left by us. And will appear in the future, one review a day,” reads an email sent by the scammers to Bludorn going by the pseudonym "Trí Toàn Nguyên." "We sincerely 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 went on to ask for $75 to be paid as a Google Play gift card, even providing a link to PayPal for their target to purchase it. The scammers also explained what they’re going to do with the money, saying that with the proceeds from the sale of that gift card their family will have “three weeks of income.”
Bludorn said the scammer made the restaurant’s Google rating drop from 4.8 to 4.5 in one week with only a few one-star reviews. An outpouring of support from the community resulted in around 100 five-star reviews in one day, making the rating recover somewhat, but Bludorn's rating only increased to 4.6, short of the original rating it had before the ordeal began. He said an effort by Google to remove the fraudulent reviews caused most of the five-star reviews from real customers to be removed as a result.
Bludorn said he never communicated with the scammer and subsequently received more threatening emails as time went on, which mirrors the story of another restaurant hundreds of miles and a couple of states away.
“What happened was Lucho woke up and saw that we got a one star,” Kelly Barbieri, co-owner of San Francisco eatery Lucho’s, recounted to TODAY. Barbieri said that Luciano "Lucho" Romero, the restaurant’s chef and co-owner told her that an anonymous Google user left them a bad review but didn’t leave a reason why.
“So, he started going back to all the customers that we had throughout the day to try and figure out where we messed up, because we’re just not used to getting them,” Barbieri explained. “We always want to try and make something right.”
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 then later on even more. Convinced that they couldn’t have gotten that many bad reviews within a couple of days, Barbieri and Romero decided to report their issue to Google, who told them in an email reviewed by TODAY that the bad reviews met all of their guidelines and wouldn’t be removed.
“Then the next morning, two more came in,” said Barbieri. “So now we were really trying to figure it out.”
Putting on her detective cap, Romero looked into the first account who gave them a one-star to see where they were located 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 the other accounts and found similar city-hoppers.
“Others gave a one-star review to us and a restaurant in Texas, then we saw one in Chicago. And so we couldn’t pinpoint where these people were located,” Barbieri said. That’s when they received the first letter on June 24.
“The first one was like, ‘We’re really sorry that we have to do this,’” Barbieri said, adding that the letters got more threatening as time went on without a payment. In each email, just like with Bludorn, the scammers asked for $75 to be paid in Google Play gift cards.
“We realize that what we are doing is illegal and unfair. But we have no other choice,” reads one email from the scammers to Lucho’s. “Let’s just close this matter positively and forget about each other.”
In all of the letters, the scammers use remorseful language, saying “sorry” and “we apologize” at multiple points during their extortion attempt. In one email, the scammer even signed their financial threat to Lucho’s with “Best regards."
Google eventually began removing the bad reviews en masse from Lucho’s. Barbieri said; however, recent good reviews were deleted along with the fraudulent ones and that there still seems to be a further issue with their reviews page. “Something on our page is frozen. People can’t post new reviews. They go on, it looks like it’s being posted and then it’s gone,” said Barbieri.
Barbieri said that Lucho’s hasn’t gotten a review, good or bad, in over a month and she believes that even good reviews with photographs aren’t being left on her restaurant’s page. After Google removed some of the fraudulent reviews, the rating of Lucho’s has recovered to a 4.8, although Barbieri said she is unhappy that her Google reviews have been sitting at 183 reviews since June, even though she says multiple people have left positive reviews since.
“We’ve recently become 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," said a Google spokesperson in a statement to TODAY. "Our teams are working around the clock to thwart these attacks, remove fraudulent reviews, and put protections on business profiles that may have been affected.”
The spokesperson also said that Google’s policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences and that they use a combination of human operators and “industry-leading” technology to closely monitor for fraudulent content 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "We encourage users and business owners to flag suspicious activity to us, which helps us keep the information on Maps accurate and reliable."
If a business finds themselves the target of a scam like this, Google suggests not to pay them; instead, restaurant owners should flag the reviews on Google’s business profile help page or reach out to Google support via its help center to aid in the removal of policy-violating content.
According to Google’s article on how its review moderation systems work, it said it created strict content policies to make sure reviews are based on real-world experiences to keep irrelevant and offensive comments off of Google Business Profiles, blocking or removing more than 95 million policy-violating reviews and more than 1 million reviews that were reported directly to Google. The company adds that tech and team members disabled more than 1 million user accounts due to policy-violating activity like online vandalism or fraud.
According to Google, it has teams of trained operators, analysts and automated systems that use hundreds of cues to detect abusive behavior, such as a shift of review patterns on a business and implausible behavior patterns by reviewers.
Google also said it helps to keep information on the site accurate and reliable and when it sees unusual activity or risk for potential abuse, it routinely puts protections on business profiles to monitor and prevent policy-violating content. That can include removing related reviews or even temporarily blocking reviews, which may be what happened to Bludorn and Lucho's.
Still, even though Google said it takes actions ranging from content removal and account suspension to litigation, the immediate effect of the situation has been felt at both Bludorn, Lucho’s and beyond.
“Who knows how many people were looking because, out of any review that we have, it’s Google that is so glaring, because people could not be looking for reviews at all and still find our Google rating,” said Bludorn.
Bludorn said that his current rating of 4.6 is two-tenths of a point lower than his rating before the scam. That might not seem like much, but according to marketing company Bright Local, consumer use of Google to evaluate local businesses has leapt from 63% in 2020 to 81% in 2021, so every review matters to the viability of these businesses.
“When you search restaurants on Google Maps, and you see the restaurant name, the rating is right next to it,” he said.
“Because people count on it. Right?” Barbieri added. “If you haven’t seen a review on a restaurant in over a month, you might not go there. You may go somewhere else.”