Multiple Houston restaurants are being targeted by a scam involving one-star Google reviews and a demand for digital gift cards to remove the negative post.
The number of restaurants being extorted has grown in the past week to include high-end River Oaks District sister restaurants Ouzo Bay and Loch Bar; Field & Tides and Maison Pucha Bistro in the Heights; and the upscale Bludorn near Montrose. The Chronicle previously reported that Daily Gather, the CityCentre restaurant owned by the hospitality group that owns Dish Society restaurants, had also been hit up.
The New York Times reported July 11 that restaurants across the country have been targets of the scam involving negative ratings on restaurant Google pages as a bargaining chip to extort digital gift cards.
In all the cases, the scam follows the same pattern where one-star reviews are posted on Google (these reviews appear when you search the restaurant on Google). The restaurant is then contacted by email by a person claiming responsibility for the post along with a request for a $75 Google Play gift card to stop the digital bombing.
The restaurants hit have received the following email:
“Hello. Unfortunately, negative feedback about your establishment has been left by us. And will appear in the future, one review a day. We sincerely apologize for our actions, and 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. We are begging you to send us Google Play gift card worth $75.”
The email then directs the restaurant to buy the card from PayPal. “After selling this gift card we can earn approximately $50, which is three weeks of income for one family,” the scammers go on to claim.
According to The New York Times story, Google is aware of the scam. “A Google Maps spokeswoman said Monday that the platform was investigating the situation and had begun removing reviews that violated its policies” which include that reviews must be based on actual experiences, according to story.
That might be little comfort to restaurants still being scammed.
The Texas Restaurant Association has contacted Google to seek resolution. It also is working with restaurant partners such as Yelp and OpenTable to put together guidance it will share on its website and newsletter for how Texas restaurants should deal with the scam, said Kelsey Erickson Streufert, chief public affairs officer for the restaurant association.
In the meantime, she recommended that restaurants monitor their reviews, especially on Google, and flag those that appear fraudulent. She also said that communicating with the public that the restaurant has been scammed can be effective, especially leveraging the goodwill of the dining public.
Here’s an example of what the exchange looks like, via Field & Tides on Facebook.
Infuriating that Google hasn’t been taking these down, if you ask me. I don’t know what more they need to take action, but I hope they do it quickly. In the meantime, check and see if your favorite places have been hit by this, and give them a proper Google review to balance them out if you can. The Takeout has more.