Houston restaurants hit by scam involving negative Google reviews



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.

Bludorn restaurant posted on Instagram the email left by a scammer asking for a Google Play gift card in exchange for removing one-star reviews on the restaurant posted to Google.

Ryan Studt, operating partner for Ouzo Bay and Loch Bar, said the two restaurants have been hit by about two dozen such one-star reviews, which started popping up about a week ago.


Negative reviews, Studt said, hurt a restaurant’s bottom line, “without a shadow of a doubt.”

“Especially right now when the summer went hot early, gas prices went up, and we’re seeing the highest inflation in years, people are choosing very wisely where to spend,” he said. “If you see a restaurant with a lot of one-stars you might not go there. One table not coming in is a big deal. Everyone in the city is fighting for business.”

Manuel Pucha, who along with his two brothers owns Maison Pucha Bistro, said the negative reviews began around the weekend of July 4.

“I noticed suddenly that all our reservations went down for no reason,” he said, adding that he lost business as a result of the scam.
Some restaurants, including Maison Pucha Bistro, have taken to social media to alert their customers about the scam and encourage them to recognize they have been targeted and leave positive reviews from diners who have actually visited the restaurants.

Field & Tides in the Heights posted on Instagram that the restaurant has had 12 one-star reviews from 12 different profiles. “We have reported all the fake reviews to @google and they have yet to remove them.”

Field & Tides restaurant in the Heights posted on Instagram the email left by a scammer asking for a Google Play gift card in exchange for removing one-star reviews on the restaurant posted to Google.
Field & Tides restaurant in the Heights posted on Instagram the email left by a scammer asking for a Google Play gift card in exchange for removing one-star reviews on the restaurant posted to Google.

Field & Tides said it did not comply with the extortion demand. “Bottom line, we will hold our ground, and we appreciate your continued support of our small business,” it wrote on Instagram.

The Nash, a downtown restaurant, received eight one-star reviews over a three- to four-day period. But it successfully had them removed.

Others are not as lucky. Aaron Bludorn, chef/owner of Bludorn on Taft, said he has not been able to remove the one-star reviews and “lost count at 30” of the negative reviews on Google.

“It feels helpless,” he said. “There’s little to no recourse. Everyone is rightly frustrated by this.”

Even if good reviews far outweigh the scam reviews, it hurts business, Bludorn said, “because Google is the number one way people find us.”

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.

The scam comes at a particularly challenging time for restaurants that are still dealing with COVID realities and economic disruptions “that still make it incredibly difficult for restaurants to succeed,” Streufert said.

She added that the situation presents a “good teaching moment” for the general dining public about the power of reviews on platforms such as Google.

“We’re supportive of customers sharing their experiences but we have to keep in mind a degree of thoughtfulness of who is posting and what their motivations might be,” she said.

Greg Morago writes about food for the Houston Chronicle. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Send him news tips at greg.morago@chron.com. Hear him on our BBQ State of Mind podcast to learn about Houston and Texas barbecue culture.

Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Share post:



More like this

iHeart Saving Lives Blood Drive With Impact Life

DATES: Friday, Nov. 26 and Saturday, Nov. 26 DRAW...

The PayPal Fiasco Was No Accident: News: The Independent Institute

PayPal on Oct. 8 sent out an update...

How & Where to Watch Titanic Online From Anywhere in 2022

Titanic (1997), directed by James Cameron, is available...