Restaurant owners said they have been targeted by scammers who post negative reviews of their eateries on Google and then demand digital gift cards as the price for removing them.
The owners of Michelin-ranked restaurants in cities including New York, San Francisco, and Chicago told The New York Times that their businesses have been deluged with negative, one-star reviews on Google Maps and other Google platforms.
Those reviews are posted by crooks who email the restaurant owners and pledge to remove the poor rating in return for a $75 Google Play gift card. If the restaurateur doesn’t comply with the demand, the scammers then post more negative reviews, according to the report.
“We sincerely apologize for our actions, and would not want to harm your business but we have no other choice,” the email reads.
The alleged scammers say in the email that they are based in India, and that a $75 gift card would cover basic expenses for them and their family for several weeks.
Restaurateurs are directed to deposit the gift card into an email account managed by ProtonMail, an end-to-end encrypted email service based in Switzerland.
“Our team is actively investigating this situation and have already begun removing cases of policy-violating content,” a Google Maps spokesperson said. “Our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences, and when we find policy violations, we take swift action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation.”
“We encourage users and business owners to flag suspicious activity to us, which helps us keep the information on Maps accurate and reliable,” the spokesperson added.
The Post has reached out to Geneva-based Proton AG, the developer of ProtonMail, seeking comment.
Kim Alter, the chef and owner of Nightbird, a San Francisco eatery, said Google removed her one-star ratings after she took to Twitter to complain.
The owner of Sochi Saigonese Kitchen in Chicago, Chinh Pham, said that one-star reviews of her restaurant were removed after customers complained.
Restaurant owners have complained that it has taken Google too long to address their claims.
Julianna Yang, the general manager of San Francisco-based Sons & Daughters, told the Times: “You’re just kind of defenseless…It seems like we’re just sitting ducks, and it’s out of luck that these reviews might stop.”