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Online restaurant reviewers trying to extort meals

Online restaurant reviewers trying to extort meals

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Hate anonymous online reviews that unfairly portray your restaurant in a bad light? They’re a problem, all right, but wait until you get a load of the scams linked to TripAdvisor reviews in Great Britain.

Operators know they should pay close attention to their restaurant’s online reputation, the best practice being to quickly and carefully respond to reviewers who report food and/or service issues. But be aware that more than a few customers have begun to game the system. Some now threaten negative reviews during their meal unless an operator picks up the check or grants some other freebie or upgrade. Even worse, noncustomers post fictitious negative reviews in hopes of getting a similar deal.

It’s a big enough problem in England that the British Hospitality Association (BHA) has put its members on high alert. Here’s BHA’s statement about this situation:

“People threatening restaurants and hotels with bad TripAdvisor reviews to extort freebies is a problem which has been growing. While it’s very difficult to put an exact figure on how widespread the problem is, it is clear that there is a small minority of online reviewers who are either directly or indirectly blackmailing hotels and restaurants for their own gain. Even just one or two bad reviews can have huge consequences for a business’s reputation.

“For example, people may attempt to blackmail during the meal. While it can be difficult to prove that somebody has held your business to ransom in this way, we would advise that business owners do not respond—or make free offers—to reviewers they suspect are malicious. Hospitality business owners should contact TripAdvisor or the British Hospitality Association if they are concerned about malicious reviews.”

For its part, TripAdvisor says it’s ready to keep reviews tied to what it admits are “blackmail” threats off its site. However, restaurant operators will have to do much of the heavy lifting if TripAdvisor’s scheme is going to work. TripAdvisor receives a new review every second, so you can only expect the company to do so much on its end.

The first step in the process: “You alert us as soon as possible,” TripAdvisor says. “It’s important to note that our enhanced functionality only works for reviews that have not yet been submitted. It will also only be effective if the information in the review matches what you’ve included in your blackmail report.”

That’s right; operators have to make the case to TripAdvisor that a blackmail attempt is for real. You’ll need to “provide some additional information, including the month and year of stay as well as the email address and/or the name of the potential reviewer. Please also describe the event at issue in the free-form space provided,” TripAdvisor adds. “Try to provide as many details as possible—this information will help us identify the review if it’s submitted at a later date.”

What happens from that point on? “If a low-rated review matching the details of your report is submitted on your business, our support team will be alerted. You may be contacted for additional information that proves blackmail was involved. We recommend retaining any relevant documentation that might be useful in this process.”

Thus the burden of proof falls on the operator. We may be too pessimistic, but the odds of a restaurant owner getting much satisfaction by following this procedure seem long. ?Keep in mind that the problem here is not TripAdvisor, the company posting the reviews. It’s the people who submit the reviews. In contrast, some restaurant owners have big problems with online review site Yelp—claiming poor treatment if they don’t buy an ad—but not necessarily with the reviews people have posted there. (For its part, Yelp says, “There’s no amount of money a business can pay to manipulate their reviews or rating and Yelp doesn’t skew things in favor of advertisers or against businesses that don’t.”)

Operators have always had a love/hate relationship with online review sites. Let’s hope TripAdvisor gets its blackmail problem solved pronto.

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