It’s hard enough earning good online reviews when customers give their honest opinion. Now more and more companies are discovering that they are also dealing with scams where people manipulate reviews to get free food or merchandise.
For example, Amazon this week 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 sellers in exchange for cash or free products. Fake reviews that boost ratings are obviously bad for consumers, even though they may be good for business. But what happens if your company receives fake reviews that are negative?
That’s what happened to The Dinex Group, the parent company of celebrity chef Daniel Boulud’s Le Pavillon, last week when the Google review page of the New York City restaurant was flooded with 15 fake complaints in the 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 eaten at their place, posted from accounts with no description or photos. The reviews were followed by emails from the responsible parties, demanding a $75 Google Play gift card to remove the reviews and stop additional bad reviews.
Fortunately, Le Pavillon, as well as several other restaurants that were victims of the scam, had an existing relationship with reputation management specialists Merchant Centric, a Westlake, California-based company working to fix false and negative seller ratings 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 remove the bad reviews, which she estimates could cost thousands of dollars in revenue if left unchecked. “A one-star increase can increase your sales by five to nine percent,” she says, reasoning that losing one star would have the opposite effect.
Inc. spoke with Shelton about why companies that rely on online reviews can benefit from hiring a reputation management company, and about best practices for consumer-oriented businesses of all kinds that are targets of similar scams.
Fighting negative comments requires a plan – and a lot of legwork
When Le Pavillon’s general manager, Jon Fitzgerald, found bad customer reviews a few weeks ago, he was surprised. “We monitor our feedback on all platforms, including Google, quite regularly, so we may have noticed two or three one-star Google reviews, which is very unusual for us to get, especially without any kind of commentary” , he says. . “Then I got a couple of emails, seeking gift cards in exchange for the reviews to be removed.”
He shared the email and reviews with Merchant Centric, which had other customers affected by the extortion scheme. The reputation management company had already started sharing news stories and reports about the scam with Google and other platforms. That helped speed up the process: The search giant removed Le Pavillon’s fake reviews within days.
The Dinex Group experience shows where a third party working on behalf of your company is most useful. Each review platform has its own method of contesting bad and false reviews, and each review usually has to be challenged individually. Without a dedicated in-house team or third-party vendor, your business will continue to suffer from bad reviews and plummeting ratings.
If you plan on handling bad reviews internally, Shelton says it’s important not only to know the ins and outs of each review platform’s process, but also to have a plan for working quickly to deal with it. coordinate those platforms in the event of a reputational crisis . Part of that planning includes registering with review platforms as the business owner and receiving the credentials needed to file disputes and takedown requests.
“There are brands that think it will never happen to them,” Shelton says. “And you can’t wait for a crisis to know what you’re going to do in a crisis.”
Save your receipts
Part of good crisis planning is collecting documentation that can show that an assessment is incorrect. Speaking to The Dinex Group, Shelton said: “We were able to advise our client, ‘You need to report this to the FBI, you need to let everyone in your organization know that this is happening’. She added 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 that the restaurant never had the reviewers as guests or had their names on the reservation system.
In cases where a bad review is not removed, Merchant Centric works with platforms to mitigate the damage. In such cases, there is some possibility: For example, Google and TripAdvisor will temporarily prevent negative reviews from affecting a company’s average score and place a banner on allegedly fake comments to indicate that they are being flagged for review. Facebook allows companies to freeze new comments on its review pages indefinitely. Merchant Centric is also working with a communications company to bring the business side of the story to the public.
Early detection is key
Monitoring the news cycle for potentially harmful claims can be difficult without a dedicated team or technical tool. Merchant Centric sells a standalone reputation management dashboard that can alert business owners to bad and fake reviews in real time starting at around $50 a month. (Shelton says alert service costs grow with business size and needs, as do reputation management and crisis response services.) Le Pavillon uses this platform in addition to manually checking his reviews.
Fraudulent reviews are not the only instance where Merchant Centric has been able to intervene and mitigate damage. In the case of an Atlanta restaurant that was the site of a shooting, Shelton says, Merchant Centric immediately noticed bad reviews mentioning the shooting but unrelated to the dining experience — a logic review platforms will usually respect. In that case, Merchant Centric also recommended shutting down Facebook reviews because, Shelton says, that site is what makes negative emotions go viral quickly.
And when a crisis strikes, stay calm. “Don’t pay the scammers,” Fitzgerald advises. “Now that Google seems to be aware of it, they seem to be acting pretty quickly. So my advice to everyone would be to be patient, report it to Google and let them do their thing.”
This post A new extortion scheme could cost your business thousands. Here’s how to make it happen
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