‘Seventy-five dollars or your restaurant gets it!’ The blackmailers weaponising one-star reviews

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The Guardian

Name: One-star reviews.

Age: Travel guides first deployed star ratings in the 19th century; the Michelin guide introduced its stars for restaurants in 1926.

Appearance: A lone star.

That sounds bad. Not always. Michelin initially had only a one-star rating – meaning good – but when it’s out of five, yeah, it’s bad.

Is it just for food? Not at all. You can give almost anything one star these days: songs, books, the loos at airports, the Sistine chapel, even the White Cliffs of Dover (“Dreadful” – Rachel D, Tripadvisor).

I imagine such a dismissive review could really have a negative effect on business. If you’re running a restaurant, certainly. Hence the advent of one-star blackmail.

One-star blackmail? Recently, a spate of mysterious one-star reviews was left on Google for restaurants in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Miami, followed by messages to the proprietors from scammers purporting to be in India.

What did the messages say? That unless the owner paid up using a $75 online gift card, the bad reviews would continue at a rate of one a day.

What did the restaurants do? Some have gone public about the scam, prompting even more strongly worded threats: “We can keep doing this indefinitely. Is $75 worth more to you than a loss to the business?”

What does Google think about this? “Our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences,” said a spokesperson.

If you can’t trust anonymous online reviewers, who can you trust? While many thousands of genuine one-star ratings are posted every day for dirty toilets, tedious films, overrated frescoes and underwhelming geological formations, bad-faith bad reviews are sadly now commonplace.

Is it always extortion? No. In 2016, a family of four went to a wine bar in Lancashire, started a brawl, got arrested and spent a night in the cells. The next day they gave the bar a one-star review on TripAdvisor. “We won’t be visiting again,” it said.

So unethical. If you start a huge fight, service is bound to suffer. Agreed. And in 2020 it was reported that independent Amazon sellers were using fake one-star reviews to damage rivals.

I’m old enough to remember a more innocent age, when small businesses left fake five-star reviews for themselves. Apparently they’ve cracked down on that – the fake one-star is easier to get away with.

Do say: “Weather terrible, huge queues, lost two fingers. You won’t catch me on Everest again any time soon.”

Don’t say: “The food was disgusting, and the portions were too small.”

July 13, 2022 at 09:18PM

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