Review Bombing: New Extortion Scam Threatens Businesses with Negative Reviews

If you’re like most people, you probably read the reviews of a hotel or restaurant before you visit it for the first time. After all, you don’t want to spend your money on an experience you may be disappointed with, right? But let’s face it, bad reviews seem to carry more weight than good reviews. The way I look at it, good reviews can always come from friends of the owner while bad reviews often come from true bad experiences, even if those experiences may have been a one-off. It is well-known that you can buy good reviews, but few people would ever consider buying bad ones.

In fact, negative reviews can be so costly that there are companies dedicated to getting them removed. “We eliminates negative search results permanently form popular search engine within 48 hrs by ensuring the truth appears first. Our technologist lets you control your online appearance”, claims one such firm, though the grammar makes me wonder about their professionalism. According to experts, 86% of people will hesitate to buy from a business that has negative reviews. In some ways this is unfortunate as even Shakespeare has bad reviews on Amazon. “My first shakespeare.. honestly I’m not impressed. The plots are dull, the only interesting thing is the language choices.”

Positive reviews are also for sale by certain illicit firms. However, most of the sites that sell these seem to be built by nonnative English speakers. “Do you think too and focus yourself or your products as mostly sold to the people?” Yeah, I would have some doubts on how well-written the reviews would be. There is also a risk of your fake good reviews being caught by a review filter. If Yelp suspects you of posting fake reviews, you will be publicly shamed.

yelp filter

This all goes a long way towards proving my point that negative reviews hold more power and, if this is the case, businesses will do whatever they can to stop them.

That’s why a new scam making the rounds may prove to be effective. This is a scam that threatens businesses with bad online reviews unless they pay a certain amount of money. Oddly, this is similar to the hitman scam, where a purported hitman contacts you and says that, although he has been hired to kill you or a family member, he doesn’t really want to and will not if you pay him some money. “I am very sorry for you, is a pity that this is how your life is going to end as soon as you don’t comply. As you can see there is no need of introducing myself to you because I don’t have any business with you, my duty as I am mailing you now is just to KILL you and I have to do it as I have already been paid for that.”

The negative review bomber has a similar approach. In a threat to a San Francisco restaurant, the scammer claims they were hired by a competitor and will give a negative review and “awful photos of the food containing hair and insects.” Of course, the scammer doesn’t want to do this, “I don’t want to hurt your restaurant reputation therefore I offer you to have a deal. I’ll refuse to fulfill this order if you compensate me the amount that I’ll lose in case of failure to fulfill order.” The scammer also threatens to release negative information to the press. However, if you pay them, they will even write a good review for you.

On the surface, this seems like something you could just ignore and relegate to the spam folder, assuming it wasn’t already there. The bad English alone should be a giveaway. However, there’s a new wrinkle that’s been put on this scam that makes it far more dangerous. Several restaurants in Washington State have started to get numerous one-star reviews with complaints of bad food, terrible service, and even food poisoning. In one case, business fell by 40% and the owner was even forced to lay off staff. Then the extortion message arrived. Pay $900 and we will remove the bad reviews. Here is the email outlining the details for payment.

review extortion

The restaurant reported the extortion attempt to the police who traced it to a source in Romania, which meant that there was little they could do. One of the police investigators claimed that, “we are seeing extortion cases like this on a daily basis right now”, which seems to suggest that some of these extortion attempts have been successful; otherwise, they wouldn’t be on the rise.

The truth is that review extortion has been around for quite a while. Sellers on Amazon often complain that they are contacted by buyers who want to keep a product for free or they will give the seller a bad review. Amazon says it is impossible to delete bad reviews because they cannot prove whether they are valid or not. However, recent news reports claim that malicious insiders at Amazon have offered to remove bad reviews for a price.

Similarly, online sites that specialize in publishing bad reviews are often criticized for being organized for purposes of extortion. This is because they allow for the posting of anonymous reviews. If this was all that they did, there would be no problem. However, sites like Ripoff Report will remove bad reviews if you join their specialized management program (Corporate Advocacy Program). The costs are hidden on the site but are reported to be between hundreds and tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the case. But Ripoff Report is not alone in profiting from negative review management.

Some businesses are more vulnerable to reputation attacks than others, but none are immune. Doctors, dentists, celebrities, and politicians have all been victimized. Would you trust a doctor who someone claimed had botched a surgery? Wouldn’t it just be easier for the doctor to pay a little extortion money? The scammers are hoping this is the case.

Restaurants and hotels are most susceptible to review bombing extortion threats, but the entire travel industry is vulnerable. Recently, CheapAir was hit with a $10,000 extortion attempt. Airbnb participants claim they are frequently asked for refunds by customers or face getting a negative review. The smaller the establishment, the more likely they will be hurt by a bad review.

Knowing the power of bad reviews, some online travel sites are taking extraordinary precautions when dealing with them. TripAdvisor, for example, automatically flags all potentially damaging reviews and then assesses their validity using a team of 300 trained employees. Remember that not all bad reviews are extortion attempts and many have merit. I have written numerous reviews and some of them have been negative. For example, I once had a meal in Corfu, Greece that deserved a bad review. While waiting for the main meal to arrive, the waiter put a small plate of bread on the table. We hadn’t ordered bread, but we figured that was part of the service. Only later, did we find that the bread was priced at about $10 on the bill. I complained about this but only received a derisive smile. I asked to speak to the manager but was told that there was no manager. I informed the waiter that I would write a bad review of the restaurant, but he just shrugged it off. So I wrote what I thought was a well-deserved bad review so that others would not fall for this scam.

Businesses should not respond to extortion attempts. They can ask sites to take bad reviews down, but they should also realize that large social network platforms, such as Facebook, take a long time to respond to complaints of a fake review. In the case of Facebook, it may be better to simply turn off the ‘Show Review’ option until Facebook removes the fake negative review, if they ever do. Online reputation management firms advise businesses to respond to negative reviews if they appear to be valid.
CheapAir responded to their attack via Twitter. They warned people that were a victim of a review extortion scam, which seems to have helped get the word out and preserved their reputation.

Customers can help by looking more closely at negative reviews. They should look for details about why the negative review was posted. Beware of reviews that appear to be written in bad English or just give general information. The Washington restaurant that was targeted received a fake review connected to a fake Facebook page, to make it look legitimate. In this case, a visit to the reviewer’s Facebook page may show that it is fake. There will be little information on it as it exists only as a front for the scam.

fake review

So, if you have a business that depends on reviews to get customers, you could be the target of review bombing. If you note a sudden increase in negative reviews, prepare yourself for an extortion attempt. You may be tempted to pay the ransom,; however, this will probably flag you as an easy mark and you can expect another attack in the future. If the site will not remove a fake negative review, respond to it in a calm and understanding way. If you receive an extortion email, publicize it so that customers will realize what is happening. I’d like to say that law enforcement would help you, but, to be honest, there’s probably not much they can do.

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