Social Media Extortion: Foodborne Illness Edition


Everyone’s familiar with the old way of foodborne illness extortion—”You made me sick so give me money or I’ll call the health department!” This worked quite well in persuading some managers to give up at least free gift certificates. Now there’s a new form of extortion happening by way of social media.

The Red Rabbit Kitchen and Bar in Sacramento, California, was faced with this reality. The owners were contacted by a customer who claimed he became ill by eating in their restaurant. The customer demanded $100, and if they didn’t pay up, he would post a bad review on the popular restaurant review site Yelp.

If you aren’t familiar with Yelp, it’s a site that allows users to post reviews and rank their experience from one to five stars. Yelp has a monthly average of 71 million unique visitors and 27 million reviews worldwide this year already. This would seem to be a good service as long as the reviews are legitimate. Users posting bad reviews based on an owner’s unwillingness to pay money puts the integrity of these services in question.

Yelp claims to have controls in place to weed out phony or malicious postings, but there is no way they could find them all. If a phony review is found, a restaurant operator can contact Yelp and challenge it.

Restaurant owners probably don’t have time to monitor all the online review sites unless faced with an angry customer. Be sure to document the experience, and if a bad review is posted from the complainant, contact the review site to challenge it. Yelp at least seems willing to do what is necessary to protect the integrity of its service.

As for The Red Rabbit, it would probably help to have a better plan in place for handling a foodborne complaint. The owners could benefit greatly by taking Respro’s advice from the Utah Food Safety Blog.

Respro has been investigating fraudulent foodborne illness complaints for its clients for the last 6 years. We have identified many cases where the complainant was either misinformed or even lying. Providing this information to owners allowed them to make informed decisions and saved them from paying money needlessly. Please contact us with any questions or concerns about how to handle a possible fraudulent foodborne illness complaint. We would welcome an opportunity to help you:

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