Hackers use fake online reviews in attempt to extort Puyallup restaurant

PUYALLUP, Wash. -- Anytime a new restaurant or business opens, many times it depends on positive online reviews. But for one restaurant in Puyallup, a string of negative online reviews wasn’t because of bad service, but because hackers were trying get money.

The Napoli Italiano and Speakeasy Lounge in Puyallup is considered the new kid on the block since it opened back in March, so any review is carefully looked at.

Especially the negative ones. For general manager Jason Folven,  looking at the online reviews was routine. Back in May, though, something was different.

“I checked the reviews at the end of the shift, and we had five one-star reviews from what would seem like an Italian descent type name,” Folven said.

But what seemed like a bad night with five reviews quickly turned into 20 more one-star reviews in the matter of two to three hours. Something wasn’t right.

Johnny Bristol, who runs the restaurant’s marketing through his company Briscom, was scrambling to figure out what’s happening.

“It was concerning because that really lowers your rating, we were down to three to two stars,” said Bristol.

And it had Folven asking his staff if they knew anything bad that happened that night.

“Nobody could recall the table, nobody could recall the events that would lead up to that,” he said.

After Bristol contacted their web host, they informed him that their  restaurant website and social media accounts were hacked.

“It was 34,000 executions in one hour. They were trying to log on 34,000 times and that crashes the system, or the webhost suspends it,” said Bristol.

And then more bad reviews came pouring in. But what was odd also was that the reviews weren’t even accurate. According to Folven, some of the reviews criticized the way their steaks were cooked. Napoli doesn’t serve steaks. And one review stated that the restaurant was the worst one in Portland, even though it’s located in Puyallup.

Folven said what was even more disturbing was that the hackers sent him a message on his personal Facebook account,  demanding $900 to take down the bad reviews.

“They know who I am personally and it’s starting to unravel at this point,” he said.

But after talking it over with the restaurant’s owner, they ultimately decided not to hand over the money. There was concern that the hackers would try to ask for more money in the future.

According to Cyber Security expert Bryan Seely, there is a reason why the hackers decided to not go for the bank and ask for more money.

“Because it’s not that much money, you’re hoping that they’re going to pay it. They definitely wouldn't pay $10,000,” Seely said. “but $500 or $1,000 you might pay that just not to have the hassle.”

Ever since the cyber-attacks, the restaurant has added Facebook filters along with other web filters that help identify real people instead of bots, said Bristol.

But it’s the customers and community that came to the rescue, too.

“I thought it was terrible,” said customer Donna Tennyson. “Anybody should be suspicious looking at that to begin with. I don’t think that many people are aware that this goes on. We have to let people know that they can’t always trust these reviews.”

Some came to the restaurant’s defense on Facebook, writing that the fake one-star ratings aren't real.

According to Seely, if you're a business owner you need to treat social media and internet reviews just like you would if your accountant looks over your books.

“I would hire somebody who does social media, even at a small scale, part time, because it’s that important. Your reputation is something that you worked hard for.”

According to Bristol, several law enforcement agencies, including the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and FBI, are looking into the hacks.