Yelp and Extortion

Yelp and Extortion

The popularity of Yelp has grown significantly in the past decade. The online listing service has become a $3.4 billion business since it opened operations in October 2004, and its users have contributed more than 100 million reviews for its more than 20 million listed companies.

Yelp is the most used review site in the world, even beating out Google, with 178 million unique visitors every month. Furthermore, 45 percent of consumers say they check Yelp before visiting a business, which makes it clear that companies can rise or fall according to their Yelp rating. With this popularity comes power and with this power come great responsibility, because Yelp can legitimately make or break a business.

Yelp seems very aware of the power they hold over small businesses, and the multi-billion dollar company is using it to their advantage. For example, Yelp is linked to thousands of cases of blackmail, a tactic the San Francisco-based company uses to sell high-priced advertising packages. Furthermore, hundreds of businesses claim that Yelp users are scamming companies for cash and services, and Yelp does little to help.

 

Yelp Users Blackmail Small Businesses

Companies understand that bad online reviews make businesses look bad and reduce overall business. Therefore, scammers are blackmailing small businesses by threatening to post bad reviews on Yelp along with 1-star ratings unless the blackmailer receive a payoff or discount.

Since Yelp does little to nothing to help businesses with this alarming trend, some businesses end up paying the scammer in order to maintain their high star ratings. But Sacramento restaurant owner Sonny Mayugba refused to pay a “supposed” patron who tried to blackmail him with a negative review.

The scammer told Mayugba, “I’m going to do a scathing review of you on Yelp, I’m going to make sure my girlfriend does a scathing review on Yelp…However, if you buy me a $100 gift card…you’ll save me from doing all those things.” Mayugba did not comply, and sure enough the bad review appeared on Yelp for his restaurant Red Rabbit Kitchen and Bar.

In another situation, a wedding photographer in Santa Clara was contacted by a person threatening to leave a bad review unless they received money. The text message to her business phone was very direct and went straight for the heart of the photographer’s business, stating, “Hey, I was checking through your business page…and I see you’ve got 36 positive reviews. However, I urgently need $500 PayPal fund with 24 hours from you or else I will post negative reviews, up to 20, on your business page. Remember, reporting me will not stop me from accessing your page. Reply with 24 hours to get my PayPal email or I do my work.”

The photographer reported the scammer, but the police said they could do nothing. In the end, the blackmailer left a bad review, which read: “He really f#@ked up at our wedding. This is why we are here. Very rude and lacks manners. Won’t recommend!”

In another case, the owners of a restaurant in Pally, Washington, were faced with a series of 1-star ratings on its Yelp page. The nasty reviews claimed that Napoli Italiano and Speakeasy had poor food quality, bad service, and reported cases of food poisoning. The 70+ 1-star reviews led to a 40 percent drop in business, according to the owner. As customers dwindled, the owners were forced to lay off staff.

The owners were puzzled by the awful reviews. They figured a competing restaurant left the 1-star ratings until a mysterious message showed up that read, “Pay us $900, and the negative reviews go away.” The police traced the IP of the message to Romania. Not only could the police not help the situation, Yelp did nothing to assist the bewildered restaurant owners.

This is every small business’s worst nightmare because most of the blackmailers are outside of the local police’s jurisdiction, and Yelp refuses to make changes to correct the behavior. The company’s statement on the issue is a very unhelpful, and utterly useless, as Yelp claims they cannot be responsible for what its users do.

Legal experts advise business owners to never give into the demands of cyber-extortionists, but they also recommend not filing a lawsuit, which takes money, lots of time, and just looks bad for the business in most cases. Instead, report the incidents to the local authorities, especially if you know the identity of the blackmailer. Therefore, track the threats, try to get as much information from the scammer as possible, and report, report, report.

Also, if someone posts a negative review, always take the time to respond to it in a diplomatic way, even if it is a fraudulent review. Redirect the false information with an accurate and positive description of the business while politely discrediting the person giving the review. Also, respond to the good reviews with “thanks,” which encourages others to leave great reviews and 5-star ratings.

Royal Moving and Storage Company is no stranger to this sort of blackmail. Royal has seen numerous cases of extortion that involve customers requesting free or discounted moving services with the threat of a bad review and rating if the discount or free service is not granted. Royal has been repeatedly blackmailed, and many of its negative reviews occurred after refusing to comply with demands of cyber-extortionists. It is a helpless feeling because reporting the blackmail to Yelp does nothing to fix the problem.

Situations like this make you wonder, “Can I really trust the bad reviews on Yelp?” No, actually, the question is whether Yelp can be trusted at all. Keep reading.

 

Evidence Suggests that Yelp ExtortsSmall Businesses

In recent years, Yelp has been discredited by numerous small businesses who claim abusive treatment. Some businesses believe that companies who pay Yelp for advertising services receive preferential treatment, while those who choose not to advertise with the Internet’s largest business directory will face severe penalties.

Not only has Yelp faced a class-action lawsuit regarding this issue, but they were also under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In the end, the lawsuit was dismissed by the Ninth Court of Appeals, and the FTC did not take action and closed the case. However, it is safe to say, “Where there is smoke, there is fire.”

Why? Look at the evidence.

The wording in the Court of Appeals’ opinion is quite telling, saying, “…threatening economic harm to induce a person to pay for a legitimate service in not extortion.” In other words, there is no law in California that interprets what Yelp does as blackmail, even though it is insinuated by California’s Ninth Court that “economic harm” is “threatened” by Yelp to “induced a person to pay” for a “service.”

Ouch! Therefore, in no way does the court’s dismissal of the case vindicate Yelp.

Filmmaker Katie Milliken exposed the shady business practices of Yelp in her documentary “Billion Dollar Bully.” Milliken says that she heard similar stories regarding extortion by Yelp from small business owners across the United States, and the stories backed the notion that Yelp acts in an abusive manner towards anyone refusing their advertising services.

Over and over she heard, “I declined to advertise, and within a few days, my good reviews disappeared, while my negative reviews came to fore.”

Podcaster Rod Brant, who hosts a restaurant marketing show, agrees with Milliken.

“Yelp has a really serious reputation problem among the independents,” Brant says. “They think that Yelp changes the position of reviews, and doesn’t feature good reviews, and instead features bad reviews if restaurants aren’t advertising with them.”

He says, not only does Yelp have an infamous reputation with small businesses, but advertising on Yelp isn’t even cost effective. “The only reason it is worth advertising on Yelp is if the rumors are true,” he continues. “That if you don’t advertise with them, your star ratings go way down and your good reviews are hidden.”

The complaints about extortion regarding Yelp have reached such a high volume that Yelp has a page dedicated to its growing dilemma of being a service that does not provide accurate reviews of its listed businesses. The page on Yelp is called: “Yelp Does Not Extort Local Businesses or Manipulate Ratings.”

The page is loaded with reasoning and excuses by Yelp, even proposing malicious intent of the small business claiming the extortion, along with the mystery of “Internet conspiracy theories.” If this is the case, why have so many reputable companies banded together to fight Yelp? Why are documentaries made and articles written about abuses perpetrated by Yelp?

At Royal, we do not pay Yelp for advertising. Our hard work, industry expertise, and next-level customer service speaks for itself. And because we don't advertise, we wonder if we have fallen prey to Yelp’s peculiar business practices. You be the judge.

Currently, Yelp suppresses 679 of Royal’s reviews. At the bottom of Royal’s Yelp listing, it reads in a light gray, small font, “other reviews that are currently not recommended." In other words, hundreds of stellar, legitimate 5-star reviews from our wonderful customers are hidden from view and NOT used to calculate or Yelp rating. Our rating is already at the top of the field, but would even be better. These suppressed reviews are from top reviewers who have rated and reviewed many other local establishments, along with Royal, and have dozens of Yelp friends. Why are these reviews not displayed prominently? Meanwhile, illegitimate, negative reviews from alleged “customers,” who no friends and few reviews, are left in plain view by Yelp.

It is perplexing, to say the least.

But hey, what would you expect from a multi-billion directory service with more than 5,000 employees? Do you think this giant public corporation really cares about small, independent businesses? In the end, consider that "Yelp" has a 2-star rating on YELP! One must give credit to Yelp for allowing itself to get roasted by 11,612 reviewers who complain about everything from sexual harassment to bigotry to content filtering to, of course, extortion.

Take for example, a review by an upset business owner from September 15, 2019, which states, "If the allegations of pay-for-good-reviews are true, then Yelp is legalized extortion. I'm liable to believe the allegations, as they've deleted my account, reviews, and pictures without warning. One day they were there, the next POOF! Gone."

The allegations of extortion by Yelp go back years. In fact, in 2013, small-claims judge Peter Doft, presiding over a case involving an unexpected and exorbitant Yelp advertising fee, told the court that Yelp is a modern-day Mafia that goes into stores and says, “You want to not be bothered? You want to not have incidents in you store? Pay us protection money.”

Digital media consultant Janie Gilarde agrees with Doft. “Yelp is a major player and oftentimes my biggest nemesis,” Doft says. “One hundred percent of restaurateurs that I work with feel very negatively about Yelp. Most see it as the digital version of the gang you are forced to pay fees to for protection. It has an autonomous grip on consumers and is used as a tool for the majority of tourists seeking dining destinations on their visits, so particularly for restaurants that I work with in densely populated areas with lots of competition, you are forced to advertise just to be seen.”

Gilarde says she gets three calls a day from Yelp sales recruiters at the beginning of every quarter regarding advertising. The calls, voicemails, and emails are borderline harassment, she says, and Gilarder makes it very clear, “Yelp does sort your reviews more favorably if you pay for advertising.”

Ask Alia Meddeb how he feels, and he will launch into a tirade about Yelp. The co-owner of Baraka Café in Cambridge, Massachusetts says that 100 positive reviews mysteriously vanished overnight, which resulted in lost revenue and immense frustration.

“…these people are scum. Go to the Better Business Bureau and you will see,’ Meddeb says. “Yelp has people crying! They are closing businesses and they don’t care.

It is true. On Yelp’s Better Business Bureau page there is an alarming “Alert” regarding a “Pattern of Complaint.” The alert reads, “Yelp came to BBB’s attention in January 2013. A review of the company was done in April 2019.  Based on BBB files this company has a pattern of complaints. Businesses state that when speaking to sales representatives, they are sold ad campaigns for one price, but when they receive the invoice the amount changes. Complaints also state, positive reviews are filtered off profiles and are no longer visible. In some cases, businesses state that after refusing to purchase advertising, positive reviews are filtered off their profiles.”

There are currently 1,279 reviews for Yelp on BBB.org, delivering a 1-star rating in total. People complain that Yelp swindles business by promising one advertising fee and overcharging them with a different price, and then, making it impossible to get out of signed agreements. And if you don’t buy advertising, they leave dozens of messages, and if you ignore the messages, as “Ted M” says, “I own a 42-year-old company with 35,000 clients. Yelp filtered 94 percent of the 5-star reviews and left 100 percent of the bad reviews. If you don’t advertise with big dollars, they trash you so the companies that pay get all of the exposure.”

At least most of us small businesses can rest assured about one thing; no matter how much we are targeted and abused Yelp, we will never have a rating as low as them…on its own Website.

 

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