An extortion scam affecting restaurant owners across the country has touched down in New York City. 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 the online scammers who are threatening to leave one-star reviews on restaurants’ business pages until their owners hand over gift cards to Google’s app store.
At Avant Garden, the reviews started rolling in roughly a week ago, says Drew Brady, director of operations for 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 off: Two one-star reviews in the same week aren’t common for the East Village vegan restaurant, 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 grown to six.
The scammers contacted the Manhattan hospitality group by email on July 5, in a form message that appears to have also been sent to other restaurants across the country this week, including in San Francisco and Chicago. “Unfortunately, negative feedback about your establishment has been left by us,” the email states. “And will appear in the future, one review a day.”
In the message, 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 over email that the Greenwich Village seafood restaurant received three such emails over the last week but has yet to see any negative reviews appear on her Google page, which currently has five stars. Still, “negative Yelp and Google reviews can be crippling for a business,” she says. “These scammers need to be blocked from the platforms as they are violating the terms of service.”
What’s all the fuss over stars? “Google is Google,” says Brady. “There’s some implied legitimacy [to restaurant ratings]. You look at that star rating without even going to read all the reviews.” The director of operations says he flagged the reviews to Google in an attempt to get them removed — “It’s hard to get in direct contact with anybody over there,” he says — but none of them have been removed at the time of publication.
Avant Garden’s Google rating currently hovers at 4.5 stars on Google, for now, anchored by close to 500 reviews as more one-star ratings pour in.
“Right now what we’re monitoring is our overall star rating,” Brady says. “The urgency will go up as that starts to go down.”
This is a developing story; Eater will update this post.