Criminals Use Google Ratings in Widespread Extortion Scam

Scammers are demanding $75, but the damage can cost restaurants a lot more
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 12, 2022 6:12 PM CDT
Criminals Use Google Ratings in Widespread Extortion Scam
In this April 17, 2019, file photo online customer reviews for a product are displayed on a computer.   (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

A new extortion scam is hitting popular restaurants from coast to coast. According to the New York Times, cyber criminals start by leaving a few one-star Google ratings, followed by an email threatening to continue the bombardment unless the victim forks over a $75 Google Play card. In their message, the extortionists attempt to pull heartstrings, writing, “We sincerely apologize for our actions, and would not want to harm your business, but we have no other choice.” They also explain that they’re from India, where the card’s value is equivalent to three weeks’ income for a family.

The fake reviews come from various fake customers and contain no content, but it’s enough to drag down a business's average rating. A Google Maps spokesperson told the Times they are investigating the issue. "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," she said. Many restaurant owners quickly complained to Google and the ratings were removed, but not everyone has been so lucky. One calls it a "nightmare," another feels "defenseless," and another says the criminals are "weaponizing the ratings" because they know how important they are for businesses.

"If you go from a 4.8 to a 4.0 rating, people don’t read why," says Kelly Barbieri, co-owner of Lucho’s in San Fran, per CBS News. "They just assume something’s wrong with the restaurant, and they may not come visit you. It can really just destroy your restaurant." As SF Gate points out, "unlike a review on Yelp, any person can leave a review to a business on Google without providing a lick of context." According to the Houston Chronicle, one area restaurant took advantage of that fact by mustering its loyal fans, who soon countered the extortion attempt with nearly 100 new five-star ratings. (More Google stories.)

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