Restaurants across the country are suddenly receiving a slew of one-star Google reviews, becoming the unwitting victims of a growing online scam.
In a new extortion scheme, a group of scam artists are leaving negative reviews for restaurants and trading free digital gift cards in exchange for them being removed, The New York Times reported. Criminals have targeted a wide range of restaurants, many with Michelin stars, in cities including San Francisco, New York and Chicago.
The restaurant owners told The Times that the reviews follow a similar pattern, containing no photos or descriptions and appearing to be written by someone who has never dined at the restaurant.
The comments are then followed by an email asking for a $75 Google Play account to remove the post, along with threats from other bad reviews if they don’t pay.
After several San Francisco restaurants fell prey to the scam, their owners took to Instagram to share their experience, including Kim Alter, owner and chef of Nightbird, who posted several of the emails in her Stories.
A Google Maps spokesperson did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment, but told The New York Times on Monday that it was investigating the reviews and had begun removing them.
“Our policies make it clear that reviews should be based on real experiences, and when we find policy violations, we take prompt action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation,” the CEO said. Times spokesperson.
In the meantime, many restaurant owners are trying to figure out how to handle the influx of bad reviews, which play a huge role in their business.
“I think the longer it goes on, the worse it will be,” Californios chef and owner Val Cantu told Eater. “We don’t do what we do for reviews, but we certainly don’t want anyone tarnishing our reputation with an Amazon gift card.”
“You’re just a little helpless,” Julianna Yang, general manager of Sons & Daughters in San Francisco, told The Times. “It seems like we’re just sitting ducks, and it’s bad luck that this criticism will stop.”