One-Star Scams Hijack Business Ratings – Google Review Scams

In this modern technological world, people rely heavily on information from Google and similar companies when they make purchase decisions. Whether they need an insurance agent, a good meal, or a handy mechanic, often the first place potential customers visit for purchase advice is the review sections on Google Search and Google Maps.

Typically, this can be incredibly helpful as the business’s pages are filled with star ratings and previous customers’ reviews full of useful information. But what happens when those ratings are hijacked by extortionists halfway around the world?

Unfortunately, this is exactly what’s been happening to several businesses. Scammers are targeting independently-owned small businesses and swarming their review pages with one-star ratings, only to turn around and send the owners emails demanding Google Play gift cards in exchange for the rating’s removal.

Local Restaurant – Scam Target

Casa Do Brasil, a steakhouse in Houston, Texas, received a series of one-star ratings along with an email explaining that the negative reviews would continue popping up once a day until a $75 Google Play gift card was sent. It stated: 

“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 […]

After selling this gift card we can earn approximately $50, which is three weeks of income for one family.
Please send the code […] and we will immediately stop leaving negative feedback and remove the existing ones.”

The request for gift cards here is unsurprising as they are a common payment choice for scammers. Unlike other payment methods, Gift cards are very hard to trace to a single source or recipient, making them a natural go-to for internet extortionists. 

And dealing with fake Google reviews can be just as complicated. Businesses have no way to prevent, hide, or remove bad ratings on their own, but they can’t just leave them be either. So they’re forced either to rely on assistance from Google or pay their scammer against law enforcement advice to continue operating as normal.

Google’s Response to Scammers

Google has been able to respond to and remove several negative scammer reviews that have been posted and acknowledges that this practice violates its rating and review policies. But even as they work to fix this problem, more negative reviews are being heaped upon independent businesses. In fact, in Casa Do Brasil’s case, Google could remove the five original scam reviews, but seven new scam reviews were posted in the time it took them to investigate and erase them. In response to this situation, Google posted an update saying:

We’ve recently become aware of a scam targeting businesses on Google with the threat of 1-star reviews unless they send money via gift cards. Our policies clearly state reviews must be based on real experiences, and our teams are working around the clock to thwart these attacks, remove fraudulent reviews, and put protections on business profiles that may have been affected.

If your business is being targeted by these scammers, please do not pay them. Instead, please flag the reviews here or reach out to Google support via our Help Center, so that our team can review and remove policy-violating content. If you haven’t yet claimed your business profile, you can do so here…”

But as Google works to combat this growing problem, it is more apparent now than ever that small, locally-owned businesses rely heavily on positive reviews and ratings to both rank higher on Google’s pages and appeal to customers. With these scams, their reputations are at stake, which leaves their businesses’ long-term success in jeopardy. 

Scammers Damage Long-Term Success

Customers want to receive services from businesses that are trustworthy, consistent, and well-liked in their communities. And the more these negative scam reviews are posted and permitted to remain on search engines like Google, the less likely individuals will be to turn to smaller business services when bigger name brand chains have better-established reputations that can withstand a few extra negative reviews.

A system like Google’s allows anyone to publish reviews and ratings can be an invaluable tool when it’s used the right way–even if negative reviews are being posted. But this widespread access is also its greatest downside. Anyone anywhere can post unvetted, unverified reviews for businesses without ever visiting an establishment or interacting with the business’s owners. This makes it so easy for scammers like these to conduct their illegal extortion businesses so freely.

And while Google has faced many review-related scam problems, it’s nothing compared to the nightmare of Facebook’s. Where Google has taken several days to respond to scammer reviews on business pages, there are reviews and ratings across Facebook that have been live for weeks with no response.

At Your Service Heating and Air faced the same scam Casa do Brasil did, receiving more than 40 fake one-star reviews across Facebook, Google, and other review sites. And while Google removed the majority of fake reviews in a few days, Facebook has yet to provide any real assistance.

Key Takeaways

Successfully managing an online reputation can be difficult for small business owners, and this stress is only doubled when one-star rating extortion is heaped onto their already-full plates. Google has done a decent job of responding to these issues and assisting independent businesses where they can, but long-term system changes may need to be implemented before any real progress can be made.