Scammers try to pressure Bay Area restaurant owners with torrents with one-star reviews
The one-star review is a cruel horror for any chef or restaurant owner. The rat Remy, and with his human puppet Alfredo, lives and dies from the review written by Anton Ego in Pixar’s «Ratatouille». Dustin Hoffman’s critique of Jon Favreau’s matte lava cake in “Chef” gives things a notch as well. But in San Francisco, it seems that one-star reviews that rain down on restaurants are part of a scam that sweeps both the Bay Area and cities across the country.
Over the past week or so, high-profile restaurants throughout the Bay Area including Nightbird, Acquerello, 3rd Cousin, Sons and Daughters, Californios and Lucho’s have received a stream of one-star reviews on Google, accompanied by requests to send $ 75 to potential scammers. Local businesses have taken to Instagram to raise awareness about the phenomenon. Chef Kim Alter from Nightbird received the first email on July 5. The words were apologetic, but there was no concealment of the email, which Eater SF has reported, aimed to pressure the San Francisco chef. The email says the sender will continue to leave more one-star reviews unless Alter sends a $ 75 Google Play gift card. “We sincerely apologize for our actions, and do not want to harm your business, but we have no choice,” the email said, ending with the promise to stop leaving negative reviews if the gift card code is sent.
“It’s a little crazy,” said Alter, who posted a screenshot of the email to Instagram. “People from all over the country just started contacting me, like in Texas and Chicago, and half of the restaurants in San Francisco.” The chefs at Acquerello, Sons and Daughters, Californios, Luchos and 3rd Cousin all confirmed that their restaurants were bombarded in the same way with one-star reviews. When Alter checked her own reviews the morning she received the email, there were already 10 new one-star reviews on Nightbird’s listing.
Greg Lutes, owner and chef at Bernal Heights’ third cousin, worked tirelessly over the past week to get the restaurant’s false reviews removed. He says he has received two emails that entice him to pay for the reviews to stop. He is notified every time Third Cousin receives a review and says about a week ago that he started getting daily pings – all one-star reviews without text. Within three days, the restaurant had seven or so. Then the gift card started asking. ‘I thought, this is madness; they are trying to push me out, says Lutes. First, he used the Google Business app to dispute each review, but in the end, Google Business Profile Support helped him get them removed. “It will be interesting to see if they continue to try to do this,” Lutes said. “I’m a little worried, but it’s also very annoying.”
Sons and Daughters’ Julianna Yang had a less positive experience with Google. On July 2, her restaurant received some mysterious one-star reviews within a few hours in a row. The team flagged the reviews as spam, but within an hour or so, Google informed her that the reviews did not violate any guidelines. “They said we could appeal the decision,” Yang said. “In a few days we had 10 or more.” Son and Daughters received only one of the blackmail emails, says Yang. As of July 7, however, she says it looks like the fake reviews have been hidden or removed – but, Yang points out, a review that did coming from a recent diner was taken down, too. “It seems that Google just swept a lot of newer ones,” says Yang.
After seeing Alter’s post, chef Val Cantu contacted her about one-star reviews on the Google listing for his Michelin-starred restaurant Californios. He noticed email alerts about the bad reviews that rolled in for about a week, mostly one star without a word. By digging through his emails, he eventually found an email that was almost identical to Alters’, and also asked for a $ 75 gift card. “I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before, I mean, it seems like a pretty smart scam,” Cantu says. “Restaurants are so vulnerable too [bad reviews] and not that it’s the end of the world, but these reviews tend to influence dinner visitors, and hospitality is at the heart of what we do – when someone is not happy, we will fix it. “
Giancarlo Paterlini from Acquerello was also the victim of the scam. He has heard from other business owners that responding to emails is escalating the situation, leading to more requests for money and harassing phone calls to the restaurant. Paterlini says he contacted Google Support via email only to receive an automatic response that a response may take “weeks” – but he does not have much hope for the situation. “I just wish the company that allowed this to happen would patrol their own territory a little better,” Paterlini said.
And the scammers are not just targeting upscale restaurants; Lucho’s, a Mexican restaurant on Ocean Avenue, was also hit. The restaurant is closed for maintenance from 5 to 8 July, and has garnered several one-star reviews while not even open. The restaurant owners took to Instagram to vent their frustrations. So far, it seems that Google’s response has been quick enough to support companies seeking help. But these are the kind of problems that affect businesses right where it hurts: spending extra time on a problem when they often barely have enough as it is. So far, Cantu has not contacted Google about the situation, and these one-star reviews are still on the list in California. “I think the longer it goes on, the worse it will get,” Cantu said. “We do not do what we do for reviews, but we certainly do not want anyone to tarnish our reputation for an Amazon gift card.”
Eater SF contacted Google, but did not hear back before the time of publication.