For the past week, a handful of high-profile and Michelin-starred restaurants from San Francisco to New York City have been targeted in an extortion campaign weaponizing Google reviews. It appears to be a coordinated effort: The restaurants receive a barrage of one-star reviews on Google — you know, the ratings that show up when you search for anything on Maps — and then the owners receive an apologetic email asking for a $75 Google Play gift card in order to stop the digital bombing.
Kim Alter is chef and owner of Nightbird, a fine dining restaurant in San Francisco that was hit by this campaign. On July 5th, she shared an email she received from the extortionists after her restaurant was inundated with negative reviews. The email read as follows:
"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 message then offered a link to buy the gift card on PayPal and an email address to receive the code. It concluded with another apology.
Hey @Google you think you could help small businesses in SF being blackmailed and giving 1* reviews to @acquerellosf @3rdcousinsf @sonsdaughterssf #marlena #birdsong @chezpim pic.twitter.com/nw3AXtYxDp
— Kim Alter (@KimAlter1) July 5, 2022
Alter shared the email on Twitter and tagged Google, asking for the company's help in removing scam-related reviews. She tagged a handful of other acclaimed SF-based restaurants that were experiencing the same review bombing, including Sons & Daughters, Acquerello, 3rd Cousin, Marlena, Birdsong and Nari. But this wasn't just a West coast thing — high-profile restaurants across the country received the same threats and negative reviews this past week, including Ever, Roux, EL Ideas and Sochi Saigonese Kitchen in Chicago.
A Google Maps spokesperson told The New York Times on Monday that the company was investigating the issue and removing reviews from people who didn't actually visit these establishments. The Google Maps team explained in February how it used machine learning and live moderation to identify and stop review bombing, writing, "Our systems continue to analyze the contributed content and watch for questionable patterns. These patterns can be anything from a group of people leaving reviews on the same cluster of Business Profiles to a business or place receiving an unusually high number of 1 or 5-star reviews over a short period of time."
This particular extortion campaign seems to fall in that final category, with restaurants receiving a bunch of one-star reviews at once, but owners like Alter had to take the issue to social media to get help from Google. One week after Alter's tweet, it looks like the scam-related one-star reviews have been purged from the affected restaurants' profiles — for now.