“Mem! At least if you give me 500$ then I will work for you.”
“We can make a deal”
“I want total 5000$ from YOU. I will make your page 5★. All negative reviews will removed and i will share all about your enemy also i can destroy yours enemies business.”
These were the WhatsApp messages an unnamed scammer sent Kamilla Riabko, who helps support her family-run business called Ottawa Perogies.
It began on Jan. 20 when Riabko’s sister read a direct message on their Facebook page. Riabko said the message came from a person claiming they could help the business with reviews and ratings. They decided to ignore the message, but the next day found numerous negative reviews dropping their 4.5-star rating on Google down to 1. Riabko said after going through and reading the reviews, many of them seemed fake and written in poor English. Riabko decided to engage with the scammer, who asked to take the conversation to WhatsApp, at which point the messages became threatening and demands for money began.
Riabko decided to let their customers know what had happened in a facebook post, and a flurry of new and positive reviews began coming in from local supporters.
However, it didn’t stop the harassment from scammers, she said, adding she finally reached out to the police on Jan. 31.
“Our initial issue was resolved in terms of our ratings,” she said. “Now the troubling thing is that the person is continuing to contact us.” Riabko says she was still receiving calls from the scammer as recently as Feb. 4.
Despite interacting with the scammer, Riabko did not give any money. She added that she knew these types of scams existed before, but her family felt overwhelmed and troubled especially because the business now relies primarily on e-commerce.
“Before the pandemic, a lot of our customers would drive by our shop, they would see our shop and say ‘hey I saw your sign and saw Perogies and had to stop in.’ That was our storefront.”
“Now our storefront is online. The face of our store is all online,” she said.
Riabko said she had not contacted the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC). “We did not know it existed until customers started telling us about it,” she said.
Level of extortion is stronger: CAFC
Jeff Thomson, a senior intelligence analyst at the CAFC, said in an interview he’s never seen an extortion scam taken to this level before.
“Having the conversation being taken off to WhatsApp. That’s certainly a stronger indication of what I would say a more sophisticated, organized criminal,” he said.
A CAFC report indicated that extortion was the number one reported scam by Canadians in 2020. There were 17,390 reports resulting in $12.5 million lost.
Thomson added in circumstances where the extortion scam is attacking a business’s reviews and ratings, it’s important to contact Google immediately to seek support.
Riabko said someone at Google reached out to her, adding she is in the process of trying to get it resolved.
Sumit Bhatia, director of communications and knowledge mobilization with Ryerson University’s Cybersecure Catalyst, said in an interview he wasn’t at all surprised that businesses are getting hit with these types of scams.
“Small-medium-sized businesses are going through a really tough time. They’re going through a transition period where they’re moving from retail outlets into more of a digital environment,” he said. “It’s happening so rapidly, and they haven’t had time or experience or knowledge to really be able to figure out what all the different things they can be impacted by.”
Bhatia said if you plan to engage to ensure to keep a complete record of everything.
“Take screenshots, take account details as much as you can, because that’s what the authorities are going to ask you for,” he said.
Bhatia also said he wasn’t surprised Riabko hadn’t heard of the CAFC.
“Unfortunately, a lot of small businesses fall into that category of organizations that are just not getting enough attention when it comes to things like security and scams,” he said. “As an industry, we know there’s more to do, and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre is not new. It’s existed for a long time, but how are we promoting it?”
Thomson said it was not the first time he’s heard that a business had not heard of them, but that the CAFC is doing its best to raise awareness.
“More people are aware of who we are and what we do today than ever before and we continue to do that,” he said. “But yeah, I mean, it’s not surprising. It’s not the first time I’ve heard it, but it is certainly something we hear less today than we ever have.”