When I started working at Better Business Bureau a few years ago, I considered myself a pretty sharp consumer; I knew the basic scam red flags: Requests to “verify” personal information, poor grammar, wire transfers out of the country, et cetera. But as with most things, the more I learned about effective scam tactics the more I realized how little I actually knew. The problem is that as soon as a new scam—or more often, a variation on an old scam—is recognized, the perpetrators are already moving on to the next scheme; but BBB is here to help.
A large part of my job is identifying, tracking and verifying emerging scam trends—like this phone scam, this charity scam and this door-to-door scam—that are likely to affect consumers or small businesses in Alaska, Oregon and Western Washington. Fortunately, there aren’t that many completely novel scams left, making my job just a little bit easier. However, every once in awhile I’m reminded that the scammers who commit these crimes are just as smart as the agencies that try to shut them down. The Negative Review Blackmail Scam is no exception. The following email showed up in my inbox:
TL;DR: “Pay me $1,500 or I will blast out negative reviews about your company.” and “Failure to comply means the end of your business.” Complete with a bunch of spelling and grammar mistakes…
Small Business Owners: Take these threats very seriously. Online reviews and word-of-mouth are significant factors that drive purchasing decisions and can have a considerable impact on reputations.
BBB offers advice to recipients of similar emails:
- Do not pay any money. It is unlikely that scammers will cease harassment once they realize that businesses are compliant.
- Collect all relevant information—like senders’ names, email addresses and any threats that are made—and print copies.
- File a report with the local police bureau; many areas have special departments for Internet crimes.
- File a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov.
- Aggressively monitor online listings for new reviews and immediately flag those that are fraudulent or unverifiable; many review sites now offer options to report suspect reviews or blackmail. Google Alerts is a great way to monitor online mentions.
- Consider posting updates on social media, directory listings or other business websites to notify potential customers.
- Contact BBB. Many scams move from region to region and if this ploy begins to happen in our area, BBB can notify and protect other local small businesses from falling victim.
Remember, third-party review websites are not legally responsible for content that is submitted by their users so it is unlikely that expensive lawsuits would be successful; while most of these sites employ strict scrubbing policies to prevent fraud it is still estimated that fakes account for 10-30 percent of all online reviews. The most important tool that small business owners and employees have to protect livelihoods is learning how to spot fakes. Check out Consumerist’s article: 30 Ways You Can Spot Fake Online Reviews
Encourage your customers to submit reviews at bbb.org, where they will be reviewed before they are posted. Verified reviews from a brand you trust.
If you have received an email like this, please share your experience in the comments.