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Scammers target the Chicago restaurant with one-star reviews, demanding money

Scammers target the Chicago restaurant with one-star reviews, demanding money

Internet scammers target a number of restaurants in Chicago, leave one-star reviews on their Google profiles, and then ask for money to make them disappear.

Suspicious one-star reviews have appeared on the profiles of a number of the city’s renowned restaurants, both new and old, including Adalina, EL Ideas, Love, Ever, Galit, Next Restaurant, Nomi Kitchen, North Pond, Oriole, Parachute, Porto, Sochi Saigonese Kitchen and Topolobampo. Many are recipients of Michelin stars or Bib Gourmand designations, very prestigious awards in the restaurant industry.

Sochi co-owner Chinh Pham first noticed the problem 10 days ago, as first reported by Eater Chicago. She asked employees if any customers had complained in person, but they had not noticed anything significant, Pham told the Tribune on Thursday. So she tried to forget it.

“If anyone does not like the restaurant, then I can ignore it,” Pham said. “But the reviews kept coming.”

Every day a few more one-star reviews appeared, although none of the people who left them included a comment or explanation. Finally, Pham checked OpenTable to see if any of the names matched the reservations, but none had. “I began to suspect that something was happening,” she said Thursday.

Then the restaurant received an email from someone asking for a $ 75 Google Play gift card to stop the negative reviews.

Pham tried to contact Google, but has not been able to get in touch with anyone in the company.

“I received a message that they will get back to me within two to three business days, but it has been almost 10 days,” Pham said. “It makes me feel very scared. There is no one to help at all. There is no customer service. But we have no choice, because these days a restaurant can not survive without Google. “

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A Google Maps spokesman said Thursday night that the company “is investigating this situation and has already begun removing cases of content that violates the policy.”

Phillip Foss, chef and owner of EL Ideas, said he first noticed the negative reviews on Wednesday, and then received an email asking for money. Foss has flagged every suspicious review on Google, but had not heard back from the company on Thursday.

Adalina, a recent Italian restaurant in the Gold Coast area, has tried to respond to its dozens of recent one-star reviews on Google by leaving this message: “To all customers reading this review: this review comes from a scammer outside the US which is threatening our business with negative reviews unless we pay them money. This user has never been a customer of our business and the review is fraudulent. “

Many of the restaurants that have received one-star reviews have been popular with both critics and customers. Ever, which opened with a $ 285 tasting menu at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, received a four-star review from former Tribune critic Phil Vettel, and is one of only five restaurants in the Chicago area with at least two Michelin stars. Sochi received a “very good” two-star rating in the Tribune’s June review, and long-standing restaurants such as Love, Next, North Pond and Parachute continue to receive praise and business in the midst of a bruise pandemic.

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Several of the targeted restaurants received identical emails that took responsibility for the negative reviews, saying that the scammers needed Google Play gift cards because they “see no other way to survive”, according to one of the emails, which Tribune reviewed.

The sender claims they are from India and will resell the gift cards at a lower price for profit. “We hope this amount will not be critical to you,” the $ 75 gift voucher said in the email. “We sincerely apologize for our actions and do not want to harm your business, but we have no other choice.”

Ever restaurant confirmed on Thursday that it received two emails demanding $ 75 in gift cards to stop the bad reviews, but declined to comment otherwise. And restaurants in San Francisco say they are targeted with the same trick, according to Eater San Francisco.

This is not the first time scammers have targeted restaurants in the Chicago area in recent months. Bien Trucha Group’s Facebook account was recently hacked, and owners got stuck and watched as thousands of dollars in advertising were charged to the restaurant’s credit card.

After two weeks of unsuccessful attempts to contact Facebook, and an article on June 29 in the Chicago Tribune, Bien Trucha’s access to the three affected Facebook pages was restored from June 30. The credit card companies were also able to reverse the fraudulent costs, which means there was no lasting financial damage, the owners told Tribune.

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And while there may not be a tangible effect yet – for example, the 11 one-star reviews posted on EL Ideas over the past four days account for just under 4% of the restaurant’s total of 294 reviews on Google – the impact of negative Reviews online can be daunting.

It is natural that more positive reviews will increase the business, and a 2017 study by a Harvard business professor found that for every extra star a restaurant gets on Yelp, revenue grows by 5-9%. And while customers are potentially suspicious of restaurants without negative reviews, revenue is starting to hit when more than 35% of total reviews are negative, according to a 2019 analysis of 30,000 restaurant review data from marketing firm Womply, which also sells software for to help businesses manage reviews online.

Over the years, review sites have added measures to avert a flood of reviews as a result of media coverage, accusations of racist behavior or other reasons unrelated to anyone’s personal experience with a company. Last year, Google said it removed 95 million reviews flagged as fake, offensive or otherwise in violation of the policy, and disabled 1 million accounts for such activity.

But seeing the top in bad reviews is still a disturbing experience, especially in such an uncertain industry, said restaurant owners.

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“As much as I want it to be different, people look at reviews online before they eat,” Foss said Thursday.

He said he hopes the matter is resolved quickly, but he tries not to get too upset about it.

“It makes me a little upset that scammers would think of squeezing out restaurants,” Foss said. – The last few years have been terrible for us.

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