Restaurants and other eating establishments are being targeted by extortionists who post fake reviews online and then offer to remove them in exchange for a gift card.

The possibility has always existed to leave poor reviews on Google Maps and elsewhere. However, seeing fraudsters get organised and issue extortion threats alongside the review is a new development.

According to the New York Times, businesses are being “deluged” with the poor reviews. Extortion threats are then mailed to the business owners, apologising for the actions but insisting that $75 Google Play gift cards be purchased in order to have the poor reviews erased.

Card codes are mailed to a ProtonMail account, where the scammers pick up their bounty. The codes are likely sold on at this point to turn a tidy profit. We don’t know if anyone actually sent a card code to the relevant mail address, nor if any reviews were removed by the fraudsters in cases where a payment was made.

The group claims to be based in India, and is currently targeting businesses in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago.

The bad review bombing technique

Review bombing is something you’ve probably heard about in relation to gaming. When fans of certain titles become annoyed with changes in a game, or something is released which they object to, some turn to leaving bad reviews.

These reviews tend to be organised by groups, and plaster a product’s page with poor ratings. This has a negative impact on the title, and comes with a variety of side effects. It might even make the product less visible to other shoppers due to the product review score tanking.

Platforms selling games have had to take significant action against these tactics in recent years, developing new ways to spot inauthentic reviews and hiding them away from the public.

Defending your business from bad review practices

Google offers several guides for both reviewers and business owners where reviews are concerned.

Firstly, there’s detailed information about adding a review on Maps. While this is useful to know as a business owner, the really important information is on the How to remove reviews guide. Review removal requests are initiated via the Manage Reviews page. Before you submit, you need to check through the Prohibited and Restricted content section and see which category extortion attempts would fall under.

We suspect Civil Discourse > Harassment, or Deceptive Content > Misrepresentation would be good places to start.

  • We don’t allow users to post content to harass other people or businesses, or encourage others to participate in harassment.
  • Misleading information can impact the quality of information on Google Maps. For this reason, we don’t allow individuals to use Google Maps to mislead or deceive others, or make misrepresentations.

This includes:

  • False or misleading accounts of the description or quality of a good or service. 

No matter which rules you feel that your extortion-laced missives fall under, here’s how to report in both Maps and Search:

Flag a review in Google Maps

  1. On your computer, open Google Maps.
  2. Find your Business Profile.
  3. Find the review you’d like to report.
  4. Click More > Flag as inappropriate.

Flag a review in Google Search

  1. On your computer, go to Google.
  2. Find your Business Profile.
  3. Click Google Reviews.
  4. Find the review you’d like to report.
  5. Click More > Report review. Select the type of violation you want to report.