Ever since the advent of the internet, the online review has been a cudgel wielded by the unseen masses. For modern restaurants, it’s not enough to receive the praise of critics or peers. Instead, the most valuable criticism comes from the everymen on Yelp and Google, a group of people who can make or break a business—and who often use that fact to their advantage. Case in point: a new class of scammers is using the threat of negative ratings and reviews to scam restaurants out of money.
Restaurants across the country, including some with Michelin stars, are getting slammed with one-star reviews on Google, The New York Times reports, only to then receive an email saying the negative reviews will be revoked in exchange for a Google Play digital gift card. If the money isn’t received, the emails go on to say, then the bad reviews will continue.
In some cases, restaurant owners reached out to Google directly to have the bad reviews revoked. In others, loyal customers raised a ruckus on social media to decry any negative criticism. But that’s not always possible, especially because this issue seems to be widespread. There are only so many actual human beings at Google who can flag and/or remove anything that seems suspicious. And in some instances, Google will leave up negative reviews that they don’t deem as violating any policies.
Especially in a time when restaurants are still trying to make up for losses incurred from the pandemic, bad reviews can be detrimental to rebuilding an audience and attracting new customers, especially customers who may be even more discerning about where they go out to dine after being stuck inside for two years.
For restaurant owners, this means an endless rotation of submissions to Google flagging these reviews and even reaching out to the FBI and Federal Trade Commission. Those latter entities both encourage anyone experiencing these threats to call them and definitely not give in to the scammers’ requests for money.
As a loyal customer, you can help by continuing to support your favorite restaurants despite the Google reviews, and if you have the time, you can combat the one-star ratings with reviews of your own to help even out the average. As stated before, there have even been successful customer-driven social media campaigns that have helped small restaurants restore their reputation. For those of you looking for a new place to dine, read Google reviews with caution. If something sounds fake, it probably is.
And to all would-be scammers out there, don’t spend your energy trying to extort small businesses that are already struggling. Find some billionaires to scam instead, then spend that money at your favorite local restaurant.