An extortion scam affecting restaurant owners across the country has landed in New York. Restaurants including Avant Garden in the East Village, Dame in Greenwich Village and Huertas in the East Village are among the first to be hit by online scammers threatening to leave one-star reviews on restaurant business pages until their owners give way to them. gift cards to the Google App Store.
At Avant Garden, the reviews started rolling in about a week ago, says Drew Brady, chief operating officer of Overthrow Hospitality, the group behind Avant Garden and a handful of other restaurants in the East Village. Brady noticed the first two one-star reviews on Avant Garden’s Google page on July 2 and he suspected something was wrong: two one-star reviews in the same week is not common for the restaurant East Village vegan, he says, especially during the summer when service tends to be slower.
By the end of the day, there were already two more. The next morning, the total had risen to six.
The scammers contacted the Manhattan hotel group via email on July 5, in a message form that also appears to have been sent to other restaurants across the country this week, including San Francisco and Chicago. “Unfortunately, we have left negative feedback on your property,” the email reads. “And will appear in the future, a review a day.”
In the post, the scammers threaten to leave one-star reviews until the restaurant provides an online code for a $75 gift card to Google Play, Google’s online app store.
Patricia Howard, co-owner of Dame, tells Eater via email that the Greenwich Village seafood restaurant has received three such emails in the past week, but has yet to see a review negatives appear on its Google page, which currently has five stars. Still, “negative reviews on Yelp and Google can be crippling to a business,” she says. “These scammers should be blocked on the platforms because they violate the terms of service.”
What’s all this fuss for the stars? “Google is Google,” says Brady. “There is a certain implicit legitimacy [to restaurant ratings]. You look at that star rating without even going to read all the reviews. COO says he reported the reviews to Google in a bid to have them removed – “It’s hard to get in direct contact with anyone there,” he says – but none of them between them has only been deleted at the time of publication.
Avant Garden’s Google rating currently sits at 4.5 stars on Google, for now, anchored by nearly 500 reviews as more and more one-star ratings pour in.
“Right now what we’re watching is our overall star rating,” says Brady. “The urgency will increase as this begins to decrease.”
This is a developing story; Eater will update this post.