Pandemic-ravaged restaurants in New York City — some of which still struggling through staffing shortages — now have a new complication to face, as an extortion scam from international blackmailers is hitting local eateries where it hurts the most: their reputations.
Earlier in the week, popular East Village vegan restaurant Avant Garden suddenly started seeing multiple 1-star reviews pop up online. That set off red flags for their marketing director, Jason Littrell.
"For us, we enjoy almost 500 positive reviews and we don't get 1-star reviews very often at all, so when we see this consistently we start to get worried and frustrated," Littrell said. "Consistent bad reviews can be very damaging to a bar or restaurant."
But the bad review kept on coming in — and then the ransom emails arrived. They demanded money in online gift cards to remove the negative posts.
Get Tri-state area news and weather forecasts to your inbox. Sign up for NBC New York newsletters.
"They were saying 'We are from India, we are very poor, send us a $75 Google gift card, we get $50 of that and that feeds us for three weeks," said Littrell. "So our first thought was, oh maybe this is real and we want to be empathetic and maybe we can help these people. And then it started to be transactional and clearly very coordinated and dispassionate to a certain degree."
Avant Garden did some digging and realized the same accounts posting on their page appeared to also be targeting other NYC restaurants, and beyond.
"You can actually see the individual that left the review and where they left a review, and we were like, wait a second, they're doing a lot of traveling. They have left four 1-star reviews in four cities, states and countries the last four days."
A Google spokesperson told NBC New York that they are actively investigating the case, saying "our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences, and when we find policy violations, we take swift action ranging from content removal to account suspension and even litigation."
In the meantime, Littrell is warning others to be on alert.
"I've never seen anything like this. It was creative, coordinated, very organized, technically savvy — we were very taken aback by it," he said. "It exposes a specific and really mean attack on independent bars and restaurants, and it could be anybody. This kind of thing is really impactful."
The restaurant has not contacted police, and are awaiting action from Google. So far, the negative reviews have not yet lowered their overall star rating.