In extortion ploy, scammers threaten San Francisco restaurants with negative reviews

A new email extortion scam has targeted San Francisco's restaurants, District Attorney George Gascón announced last week. 

Via email, scammers threaten to "spread false and negative information" about SF eateries unless the businesses pay an undisclosed fee, according to the DA's office. 

In one instance, a scammer created a negative press release and threatened to send it to media outlets if they did not receive monetary compensation. 

According to a report in the Chronicle, Dogpatch restaurant Serpentine (2495 3rd St.) received an email from a "PR manager" named Natasha Nixon with the subject line "Reputation." 

In the email, the scammer said that she was hired by a competitor to share "awful photos of the food containing hair and insects." 

“I don't want to hurt your restaurant reputation, therefore I offer you to have a deal,” the email continued. “I’ll refuse to fulfill this order if you compensate me the amount that I'll lose in case of failure to fulfill order.”

Additionally, if Serpentine chef Tom Halvorson ponied up the cash, the scammer indicated she would provide the competitor restaurant's name, "so you can report him to the police." 

Halvorson notified law enforcement, the Chron reported. 

Serpentine. | Photo: Angelique L./Yelp

The DA's office notes that cyber extortion schemes are a criminal offense, and could be punishable by two to four years in jail and up to $10,000 in fines. 

The office also said that though some of the restaurant victims are located in San Francisco, "scammers are operating from beyond our jurisdiction." 

To combat the scam, the DA's office said that it's working with the Golden Gate Restaurant Association (GGRA) to bring awareness to the potential ploy. 

"Unfortunately we live in an era where internet extortion, fake bills, and phishing scams targeting small business owners are common," said GGRA executive director Gwyneth Borden. 

"At the GGRA, we make it our mission to help identify these pain points, alert the community, and provide solutions for avoiding scams and we are grateful to the District Attorney's Office for bringing broader attention to this critical issue."

“Using threatening emails and coercive measures to extort money from small business owners and local restaurants is egregious,” said Gascón in a statement.

In terms of fending off future scams, Gascón said that identifying them before they occur is the most effective strategy. 

If you think you are the victim of an email extortion scam, please report it to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) immediately. Contact the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office’s Consumer Mediation Hotline at (415) 551-9595 or the San Francisco Police Department if you have additional questions or concerns.

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