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July 27, 2022

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Beverly Kim owns two restaurants in Chicago and is no stranger to the ups and downs of reviews and criticism. But a series of one-star reviews posted to her restaurant Parachute’s Google business profile in early July raised an alarm.

“My initial reaction was, are they being racist? This is a Korean restaurant, maybe people aren’t understanding it,” she said.

As it turned out, it wasn’t a racist attack, but it was a coordinated one. A new scam targeting independent restaurants across the country emerged a few weeks ago. First, scammers left multiple one-star ratings on restaurants’ Google listings. Then they emailed the restaurants to demand small cash payments in exchange for deleting the reviews.

“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 emails read, before asking for $75 gift cards to be sent to an encrypted email address. “The fact is that we live in India and see no other way to survive.”

It was extortion by Google rating.

Parachute was just one of the Chicago restaurants targeted by scammers in attacks that spanned the country from San Francisco to Houston to New York.

This was going to be a story about Google’s inaction in response to the organized and widely publicized scam. As of last week, many of the fraudulent ratings still appeared in search results and on Google Maps. Though Google encourages business owners to report suspicious reviews, the platform was slow to respond to frantic restaurant owners, and in some cases even said that reviews didn’t go against company policy. Now, weeks later, some targeted restaurants, including Parachute, have found the one-star reviews are finally gone.

Still, the scammers found an easy target in independent restaurants that faced headaches as they tried, unsuccessfully at first, to have the reviews removed. Weeks after the scam began, it’s revealed just how reliant restaurants are on review platforms like Google, and how little power they have to respond to bad actors. It’s a fragile system that restaurant owners rely on heavily to succeed, and one that has few checks and balances to ensure they aren’t being taken advantage of or extorted.

Some restaurant owners, Kim included, reported all the offending reviews and received responses saying that the reviews didn’t violate Google’s policies and would remain on the site. (The response asked business owners to “consider replying to the customer directly to resolve the issue.”) Despite having proof of extortion in hand, restaurants, stuck in a loop of technological customer service, were left to ignore the fake ratings, or worse, engage their extortionist, hoping they wouldn’t pile up and hurt business.

Google also recommends, obviously, that restaurants don’t pay the scammers. In an emailed statement provided on July 25, a Google spokesperson said the company was aware of the extortion scam and that its team was working “around the clock” to thwart the attacks, take down fraudulent reviews, and protect affected restaurants’ profiles, without elaborating further. “Our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences, and we use a combination of human operators and industry-leading technology to closely monitor 24/7 for fraudulent content,” the spokesperson said. “We encourage users and business owners to flag suspicious activity to us, which helps us keep the information on Maps accurate and reliable.”

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