A New Extortion Scheme Can Cost Your Business Thousands. Here’s How to Get Ahead of It


It’s hard enough to earn good online reviews when customers post their honest opinions. Now, more and more, businesses are discovering they also need to contend with scams where people manipulate ratings to get free food or merchandise.

This week for example, Amazon filed a lawsuit against the administrators of more than 10,000 Facebook groups that it says are part of a coordinated effort to sell positive reviews to Amazon merchants in exchange for cash or free products. Fake reviews that boost ratings are, of course, bad for consumers, even if they might be good for business. But what happens when your company receives fake reviews that are negative? 

That’s what happened to The Dinex Group, parent company of famed Chef Daniel Boulud’s Le Pavillon, last week when the New York City restaurant’s Google review page was flooded with 15 fake complaints in a span of six days. The incident is part of a larger scam in which restaurants across the country have received a sudden onslaught of one-star ratings on Google from people who reportedly had never dined at them, posted from accounts with no description or photos. The reviews were followed by emails from the parties responsible, demanding a $75 Google Play gift card to remove the ratings and stop additional bad reviews. 

Luckily, Le Pavillon, as well as several other restaurants victimized in the scam, had an existing relationship with reputation management specialists Merchant Centric, a Westlake, California-based company that works to remediate false and negative merchant reviews with Google, Facebook, Yelp, and other platforms. Merchant Centric’s Chief Client Success Officer Connie Shelton says her company was able to act quickly to arrange removal of the bad reviews, which she estimates can cost thousands of dollars in revenue when left unchecked. “A one-star rating increase can create as much as a five to nine percent increase in your sales,” she says, reasoning that losing a star would have the inverse effect. 

Inc. spoke to Shelton about why businesses that depend on online reviews can benefit from hiring a reputation management company, and best practices for consumer-facing businesses of all types that find themselves targeted by similar scams. 

Fighting Negative Comments Requires a Plan–and a Lot of Legwork

When Le Pavillon’s general manager Jon Fitzgerald encountered poor customer reviews coming in a few weeks ago, he was surprised. “We keep a fairly regular eye on our feedback across all platforms, Google included, so we noticed maybe two or three one-star Google reviews, which is very unusual for us to get–especially without any sort of commentary,” he says. “Then I received a couple of emails, looking for gift cards in exchange for having the reviews taken down.”

He shared the email and reviews with Merchant Centric, which had other clients that had been hit by the extortion scheme. The reputation management company had already begun sharing news stories and reports about the scam with Google and other platforms. That helped expedite the process: The search giant removed Le Pavillon’s fake reviews within a few days. 

The Dinex Group’s experience highlights where a third party working on your company’s behalf provides the most utility. Every review platform has its own methodology for disputing bad and fake reviews, and each review usually has to be disputed individually. Without a dedicated in-house team or an external vendor, your business will remain subject to lingering bad reviews and plummeting ratings. 

If you do plan to handle bad reviews in-house, Shelton says it’s important to not only know the ins and outs of each review platform’s process, but to have a plan in place for working quickly to coordinate with those platforms should a reputational crisis arise. Part of that planning includes registering with review platforms as the owner of the business and receiving the credentials necessary to file disputes and requests for removal. 

“Brands out there that think it’ll never happen to them,” Shelton says. “And you can’t wait until a crisis to know what you’re going to do in a crisis.” 

Keep Your Receipts

Part of proper crisis planning means collecting documentation that can prove a review is false. For The Dinex Group, Shelton says, “​​We were able to advise our client, ‘You need to report this to the FBI, you need to let everybody in your organization know that this is happening.” She adds that Merchant Centric further reassured Dinex that if Google wouldn’t remove the reviews, it would draft a response to post on the site letting customers know the restaurant had never had the reviewers as guests or had their names in its reservation system.

In cases where a bad review is not removed, Merchant Centric will work with platforms to mitigate the damage. There is some recourse in such cases: Google and TripAdvisor, for example, will temporarily prevent negative ratings from impacting a business’s average score and place a banner on alleged false comments to indicate they’re being flagged for review. Facebook allows businesses to freeze new comments on its review pages indefinitely. Merchant Centric also works with a communications firm to get a business’s side of the story out to the public.

Early Detection is Key 

Monitoring the news cycle for potentially damaging claims can be difficult without a dedicated team or tech tool. Merchant Centric sells a standalone reputation management dashboard that can alert business owners to bad and false reviews in real time starting at around $50 a month. (Shelton says the cost of the alert service scales with business size and needs, as does the cost for its reputation management and crisis response services.) Le Pavillon uses this platform in addition to manually checking its reviews. 

Fraudulent reviews aren’t the only case where Merchant Centric has been able to intervene and reduce damage. In the case of an Atlanta-based restaurant that was the site of a shooting, Shelton says, Merchant Centric immediately flagged poor reviews that mentioned the shooting but were unrelated to the dining experience–a logic that review platforms will usually honor. In that case, Merchant Centric also recommended shutting off Facebook reviews because, Shelton says, that site in particular allows for negative emotions to go viral quickly. 

And if a crisis does hit, stay cool. “Don’t don’t pay the scammers,” advises Fitzgerald. “Now that Google seems to be aware of it, they seem to be acting fairly swiftly. So my advice to anybody would just be to be patient, report it to Google, and let them do their thing.” 

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