Several restaurants in Houston, including Georgia James, Daily Gather, Loch Bar, Piatto Ristorante, and Bludorn, have been bombarded by one-star Google reviews in a ransom-style extortion scam.
Each has received a suspicious email, purportedly from India, that threatens to continue the rash of one-star reviews daily unless they’re mailed a $75 Google Play gift card — an organized extortion attempt that has been experienced by numerous restaurants around the country including those from Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and beyond.
“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 further choice,” the bad actor writes in emails sent to several local restaurants. “The fact is that we live in India and see no other way to survive.”
Cherif Mbodji, co-owner and general manager of Bludorn, said Wednesday, July 13, that his friend, a small restaurant owner, had first received several one-star reviews and the threatening email. Days later, Bludorn received the email and a blitz of low reviews sans comments. Mbodji said he and chef Aaron Bludorn, co-owner of the restaurant, quickly acted, reporting the reviews to Google as harassment, but Mbodji said the company noted that there was nothing wrong with the review and declined to remove them.
Bludorn said though the ransom attack is seemingly unsophisticated, it made the restaurant’s Google rating drop from 4.8 to 4.5 in one week with just seven one-star reviews. An outpouring of support from the community Tuesday, July 12, resulted in around 100 5-star reviews in one day — but the rating only increased to 4.6.
The scammers have reportedly doubled down. In a subsequent email, Mbodji said the scammer asked: “Is this really worth the loss of business?”
Newer victims include Maison Pucha Bistro, Field & Tides, and Georgia James, the steakhouse spearheaded by James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Shepherd. Georgia James’ management fought back, responding to the reviews on Google directly, many of which have since been removed.
“SPAM- part of a string of 1 Star reviews blackmailing our business, asking for money. They said they would post one bad review per day until we pay them,” management wrote in response to recent reviews.
For the Atlas Restaurant Group, which operates Ouzo Bay and Loch Bar in Houston, the influx of one-star reviews began last week, according to Ryan Studt, the group’s operating partner. Not knowing that other local restaurants were experiencing the same thing, the operators refused to respond to the email. The restaurants’ ratings experienced a half-point drop within a week.
“I’m curious whether there’s anyone out there that already paid,” Studt said.
Daily Gather owner Aaron Lyons told the Houston Chronicle that he refused to pay out of principle and fear that the negative reviews for his restaurant would simply continue. After learning about the threat, a group of Daily Gather supporters stepped in, leaving around 100 five-star reviews for the restaurant, the Chronicle reported.
While Bludorn said he’s extremely grateful for the community response, the chef is still concerned that his restaurant’s fate could be beyond their control now. Such an attack shows how much Google reviews weigh on restaurant owners and staff.
“Google is so powerful,” Bludorn said, noting that aside from dining and food publications, people most often use Google maps and its search engine to seek out new restaurants — both of which prominently feature restaurant ratings. “Someone visiting or new to this city, this is the easiest way to search for a restaurant in America, and the number is telling, and so it’s completely damaging.”
But many restaurant owners who have reached out to Google say the tech company has either been radio-silent or has sent an automated response rejecting their requests to remove the fraudulent one-star reviews because the reviews reportedly did not violate Google’s guidelines. As of Thursday, July 14, though, many restaurants, including Georgia James, Piatto, and Bludorn saw some of their one-star reviews removed, with Bludorn’s increasing to 4.7.
“We’re hoping it goes back to ... our original rating,” Mbodji said, adding that they’ve still yet to hear from Google.
In a statement to Eater Houston, a Google spokesperson said the company is investigating the situation and have already begun removing cases of “policy-violating content.”
“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,” the spokesperson wrote. “We use a combination of human operators and industry-leading technology to closely monitor 24/7 for fraudulent content, and we encourage users and business owners to flag suspicious activity to us, which helps us keep the information on Maps accurate and reliable.”
Still, many restaurants worry that the one-star reviews have already made enough of an impact on their online reputations that will be hard to undo if the false reviews are not removed quickly.
Mbodji predicts that it could take six months to a year — and more than 1,000 reviews — to reverse the damage that’s been done.
“Hopefully, as time goes by, people will remember this, but some people will forget,” Mbodji said. “And restaurants like us — that were in line with some of the best in the city — could be stuck with a lower rating,” he said. “I’m hoping that not only Google can come up with a way to stop it, but they can get us back to our correct score.”
Studt, who said Atlas management has worked to communicate with its customers about the scam in-house, said the timing couldn’t be worse for hard-working people in the industry.
“It’s hotter this summer than it usually is. There’s inflation, gas prices are skyrocketing, and our staff is doing everything in their power to make sure every guest is taken care of,” Studt said. “And then we’re getting these reviews and they have no actual part of it. It hurts the people.”
In the meantime, Studt said his restaurants will continue to focus on giving great dining experiences and improving our services.
“This isn’t just about restaurants or one thing,” Studt said. “I won’t be surprised if we start to hear about other businesses, so it's important that we’re being vocal about it happening.”
Update: July 14, 2022, 2:30 p.m.: This article was updated to include comments from Cherif Mbodji, co-owner of Bludorn, and to note newer restaurants, like Field & Tides, who have experienced the Google review extortion scam.