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San Francisco restaurants slammed with false negative reviews online

San Francisco restaurants slammed with false negative reviews online

After the holiday weekend, Greg Lutes, owner of Third Cousin in Bernal Heights, received an email from Google stating that his fine dining restaurant had some new reviews. He clicked on the link and saw a flood of consistently bad one-star ratings again without further comment.

Knowing that this is the kind of thing that can sink somewhere over time, Lutes launched an app to try to dispute the reviews, just to get his input rejected. He was just beginning to suspect that he was being targeted when an email came to his business account.

“Unfortunately, we have given negative feedback about your establishment,” it said in a message from a person identified as Manas Agarwal. More “will appear in the future, one review a day,” threatened the email, unless Lutes paid $ 75 in the form of a Google Play gift card, to deposit into a Pay Pal account. “We sincerely apologize for our actions and do not want to harm your business, but we have no other choice,” the message concluded. “The fact is that we live in India and see no other way to survive.”

Lutes, who has been in business for seven years, knew that scammers had found him. Then he remembered that he received earlier emails from mysterious companies offering to evaluate negative reviews, for a fee.

“It’s basically blackmail,” he said. “They wanted me to pay them to stop it.”

Lutes checked his Instagram feed and saw that Kim Alter, owner of Nightbird on Gough Street, had posted a screenshot of the exact email he had received. The message has been received by at least a dozen restaurants in the city, mostly exclusive Michelin guides. And it has not stopped there. The same scam appears to have hit restaurants in Chicago and other major eateries this week. All have received a number of individual stars, the lowest possible on a five-star scale, but no further comments. It is basically the same scheme that hit exclusive restaurants in 2018.

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“Unfortunately, attempted fraud is nothing new for restaurants in San Francisco,” said Mat Schuster, chairman of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “This attempt, which involves leaving negative Google reviews, is very stressful, especially as tourism has started to return.”

It’s twice as stressful for small mom and pop restaurants as Nightbird, which has 20 seats and has to keep them full. “Bad reviews online can shut down restaurants,” Alter said. “If you look online and see a one-star restaurant, you are not going to give them a chance,”

After checking her Google page, Alter saw 10 one-star reviews for Nightbird, a seasonal California style with an average rating of 4.8 out of 5 on Google, and similarly high ratings on OpenTable and Yelp. Alter started searching around and found that the low grade scheme was only on Google. She also searched similar restaurants as hers in the city and found at least a dozen.

“I realized that this is obviously a big scam,” said Alter, who has worked with fake reviews in the past. She experiences that the only way to fight them is to take the offensive, because the sides themselves will always side with the reviewer, she said. So Alter took to Twitter and connected to other restaurants that had been scammed, Acquerello, Third Cousin, Sons and Daughters, Marlena’s, Nari, Birdsong. It took off from there with retweets and several restaurants added to the thread. She started hearing from restaurants in Chicago and Houston. Not just restaurants. It has also affected bar owners and car dealers.

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An owl statue sits in the front window of the Nightbird restaurant in San Francisco, California, Friday 30.  March 2018.

An owl statue sits in the front window of the Nightbird restaurant in San Francisco, California, Friday 30. March 2018.

Michael Short / Special to The Chronicle

Alter has heard from apparently everyone in the industry, including people she did not know from restaurants where she has never been, about the downpour of reviews. Oddly enough, she never heard from Google, which had been tagged in tweets and Instagram posts. Google did not respond to requests for comment from The Chronicle.

Twelve hours after Alter’s partner, Ron Boyd, sent an email to Google, he received a form stating that the incident was being investigated. That was the last he heard from the company. Just before midnight on Tuesday, the bad reviews were taken down. When Nightbird reopened on Wednesday, business was about average.

On Thursday morning, Alter carefully checked the review pages to see if the scammers had followed up on the threat to do so daily. It was nothing.

“What’s scary about this is that July is a slow month for restaurants in the city,” she said. “I hope they just leave us alone.”

Graham Cunningham will host dinner guests at the Octavia in San Francisco, California, Thursday, December 30, 2021.

Graham Cunningham will host dinner guests at the Octavia in San Francisco, California, Thursday, December 30, 2021.

Scott Strazzante / The Chronicle

The same goes for Melissa Perello, the owner of Octavia in Pacific Heights, who was hit by half a dozen one-star reviews on Wednesday.

“We have sent out complaints on Google, but as a restaurant owner we get the short end of the stick,” Perello said. “There’s not much we can do but send a complaint that does not deserve a response.”

She said the business had not suffered at her 54-seat restaurant yet, but give it time.

“Negative reviews will downplay our overall rating,” she said. “It affects people’s perception of the restaurant.”

Lutes also filed a complaint with Google through the enterprise site support entry program. Within two days he heard back from a human, which he took as a victory. He was asked to take screenshots of the negative reviews and email them to the representative. On Wednesday, all the negative reviews were gone, without comment or explanation. During the four days the bad reviews were active, his overall score dropped slightly, but returned to normal. It all happened too fast to realize if the reviews caused his business to fall, but he noted that this has been a slow week.

“I’m just waiting to see if they keep trying to target us,” he said Thursday. “Will these negative reviews stop, or will this be something I have to keep trying to fight?”

Sam Whiting is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]

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