Puyallup Italian restaurant fighting foreign extortion threat
Running a small business in 2018 is a challenge in and of itself, but a new Italian restaurant in Puyallup is finding itself up against more than just the typical mom-n-pop business woes. It’s fighting foreign blackmail.
Napoli Italiano and Speakeasy Lounge opened this spring. It relies heavily on local communication to build a reputation in the community and drum up business.
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“Word of mouth reviews are huge right now,” manager Jason Folven told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson.
Folven checked Napoli’s Facebook one day in early May to find five scathing, one-star reviews. The comments made in the reviews, however, did not quite add up.
“They were making statements like, ‘in the Portland area,’ and referring to dishes that we don’t even sell here,” Folven said.
Digging deeper, he saw that the names of the reviewers all looked Italian. Upon clicking on their profiles, he found that the profiles appeared to be fake — a few Google searches revealed that the profile photos of the reviewers were actually stock photos that anyone can find and download online.
Each day for the next week, more and more of the same type of negative reviews appeared on Facebook and Google. The Google reviewers appeared equally false, with each profile having given just one review.
Sure enough, Folven’s suspicions were confirmed when he received an extortion message to his personal Facebook account from a Rashid Shishani. The message demanded $900 be wired to a bank account in Singapore.
“We make bad reviews of you guys. We will continue to do so,” the message stated. “We have done facebook and google reviews [sic]. You are at 2.9 star. We will remove all bad review away if you pay $900.00 USD.”
The message continued that if the money was paid, all of the one-star reviews would be changed to five-star reviews. It threatened that if the money was not paid, bad reviews would continue to be written until the business was forced to shut down.
“I can only imagine what the money might be for or where exactly it’s coming from,” Folven said.
The restaurant’s marketing manager noticed that the IP addresses of the fake accounts were coming from Romania. As incredulous as it sounds that obvious scammers half a world away could affect a restaurant in Puyallup, Folven said that the reviews have made a large and troubling impact. After all, in this day and age, social media reviews play a huge role in how people choose a restaurant for dinner — especially in the case of new restaurants.
“This has dramatically affected us,” Folven said. “We had business from day one, and then it dropped probably 40 percent just in the matter of the last couple weeks.”
The message also threatened Napoli management that if they told anyone else about the threats, they would receive bad reviews on a daily basis.
Napoli Italiano responds
Napoli owner Ramesh Kumar told Folven that there was no way he would give in to the blackmailers. Kumar, who also owns Puyallup’s Fiesta Taqueria & Tequila Bar and Karma Indian Cuisine and Lounge, is well-known in the Puyallup community for his support of veterans and law enforcement, offering military members, police, and firefighters free meals at his restaurants once a month. For Kumar, Folven said, playing into the hands of extortionists goes against everything he believes in.
“Even though it seems like $900 isn’t even that much to take a risk to make it stop, he said that there’s no way … he says that no matter what, we’re fighting it,” Folven said.
Folven said that other businesses in the area have reported similar foreign extortion threats. Napoli staff plan to go to law enforcement with screenshots of the extortion messages, reviews, fake profiles, and Google search results proving that the profiles are false.
“We want to create awareness,” Folven said. “This is some serious bullying from people not even in our country.”
In the meantime, Napoli continues to push on. The restaurant is offering its patrons free pizza from 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Monday, July 30 in the hopes that customers will write kind reviews to outweigh the scammers.
“We decided to just stand up and fight against this regardless of what the outcome is going to be,” Folven said.
Dori asks his business-owning listeners to let him know if they have had similar experiences. If your business has ever been threatened with bad reviews, send Dori a text at 98973 or email the show with your story.