Kamilla Riabko’s family business, Ottawa Perogies, has been a food staple for 13 years in the city’s west end, upholding a 4.5 star review on Google Reviews.
But on January 20, Riabko’s sister got a strange direct message on one of their social media accounts, warning that their business was under threat. The message told her to contact the sender to discuss, because their online rating was about to drop to one star if they didn’t.
Riabko’s sister didn’t think much of it — it was probably just spam.
The next day, though, they’d find out the threat was real when they started getting a bunch of one star ratings that made reference to that week — the funny thing was, the business wasn't even open that week due to COVID-19 rules.
Something was fishy, so they investigated further.
Many of these accounts, they found, were registered to users in the U.S., based in Florida and Texas.
Then they got another message from the mysterious sender, saying they could help them get their ratings back up, but Riabko’s sister declined and the perplexing stranger vanished... for the time being.
Their rating as of the interview on January 30 was a 0.3 out of five stars.
“When you leave a negative review, it’s such an impact on a small business. I’m speaking on behalf of my parents who do not speak English [they speak Russian],” Riabko explained. “When my mom found out what was happening’ she was very distraught and she [asked], ‘What do we do?’”
This is a scenario that many businesses — local, national and international — are facing during the pandemic. The sources of these fake online reviews can vary from scams to competitors unleashing attacks, personal attacks and even customers who feel more comfortable airing grievances over the web than calling a business owner directly.
These attacks have been around since before the pandemic. During the pandemic, however, the trend appears to be growing.
This can have a more profound effect on businesses like never before, business owner and local advocate Michael Wood explains.
“In today's world, visibility equals credibility,” Wood explained. “Small businesses use social media platforms and other online resources to try and generate more awareness of their retail store, restaurant or any other type of small business seen by the public. The problem is creating more and more exposure in that you open yourself to positive, negative or trolling reviews from the public.”
According to research conducted by BestSEOCompanies.com, 39 per cent of online reviews are unreliable — with food and grocery stores in particular, about 38 per cent of online reviews proved to be bogus.
And a 2020 survey by BrightLocal, 85 per cent of people trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, and every one-star increase can turn into a five to nine per cent increase in revenue.
But Riabko’s story doesn’t end there.
She says she has reached out to Google and Facebook to report the fake reviews, but has yet to hear back from either of them or see the fake reviews taken down.
She’s also filed a police report online with the Ottawa Police Service. Riabko is still waiting for someone to reach out for follow-up.
“My parents are taking it really hard because they don’t understand," she said. “They didn’t understand why we were getting less customers — if it was because of the lockdown, or because of what was happening online.”
(Riabko’s parents are both immigrants from Ukraine who are in their 60s, Riabko clarifies.)
Then Riabko got her own message on Facebook with an offer to purchase 1,000 positive reviews after she had posted an ad online.
The name of the sender looked familiar — it turns out the person with that name was also one of the people who posted a negative review on their Google page.
Through more sleuthing, the sisters believed they have tracked the problem back to a potential old flame who dated someone in the family in the past.
When the mysterious emailer finally reached out to the sisters again, they confirmed that someone had hired them to conduct the attack campaign, but they would not release any information on their identity. But they did ask for $5,000 to fix the problem (which the sisters did not accept).
The sender would call the business owners countless times a day — at any time, day or night — and calling from different numbers.
It just goes to show how far violence can grow and how far people are willing to go to destroy businesses, Riabko says, adding that they are vulnerable as a small business.
The last number had been traced back to somewhere in South Asia.
“It took 10 days for 13 years worth of work to break down,” Riabko said. “It’s been really stressful. It’s really diminishing our hard work.”
Ottawa Perogies isn’t the only business in town in this predicament.
Manny Mellios, owner of the Sandwich Stop on St. Laurent Boulevard (near Walkley Road), says he, too, saw his online rating fluctuate.
It was at a 4.9 in November, then dropped to a 4.7, but now is back up to a 4.8.
“The reality is, some people don’t understand that a negative review — or multiple negative reviews — can personally affect your business,” Mellios said. “Especially when you’re working so hard, especially in this pandemic.”
In Mellio’s case, it was a case of a few dissatisfied customers.
“Our Google reviews are really good — we were batting a rating of 4.9 for four years,” Mellio explained. “But then in November I got three bad back-to-back reviews in one week. Listen, nobody’s perfect — I get it, we might have messed up, or whatever the case is.”
But what Mellio doesn’t understand is why he never received a call from anyone to tell them about their experience.
He says he would have been happy to hear them out.
“I will not go to a computer and bash somebody if I didn’t receive a proper service without calling the owner,” he said. “I’m saying, had I had that situation happen to me, I would sooner talk to the owner or manager before I would go home and destroy somebody on social media.”
If anything, small businesses like Ottawa Perogies and the Sandwich Stop need as many positive reviews as they can get, Wood says.
“Small businesses need as many positive reviews at any point in time let alone during a pandemic,” he said. “We have all seen the memes online about how you can support a small business without spending any money. One of the first ways is always to leave a positive review.”
Wood explains that often time, positive reviews that come in are much slower due to human nature, which means it takes longer to muffle the negative and trolling comments.
“As much as you are entitled to leave a comment, people are also in a position of being forgiven because of a bad day that we all have,” Wood added. “I would strongly urge the customer that may have had a negative experience to call or email the business or the owner and have a discussion in private about the experience as opposed to always making it a public affair.”
Because those comments can cause a lot more damage than many might think.
“My parents don’t have a pension plan,” Riabko said. “The business weighs more on us than a typical person would think of. They see dollar signs, but everything we make goes into mortgage payments, tuition fees (for my sister) and more.”
“We’re depending so much more on online interactions during the pandemic,” Riabko said. “It breaks my heart — the extent people will go to to break down families. We worry that because of these reviews, someone has impeded the face of our store. All people have to go by during the pandemic is what people have to say online.”
She added, “It’s only going to bring us to shutdown when this business is for our parents’ retirement. It’s really tough.”