3OYS WARNING: Businesses fall victim to online 'extortion' scam

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By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX -- Have you ever looked up online reviews before eating at a restaurant or maybe making reservations at a hotel? 3 On Your Side warns, don't believe everything you read.

Not everything on the Internet is true. For example, some businesses pose as a consumer and post negative comments about a competitor.

And here's a new scam: someone will post a negative comment and then promise to remove it if the business owner pays them off. That's what happened to Fred Renstrom, owner of Fat Freddy's Catering.

"When I built the kitchen, I wanted to have a 6,000-square-foot facility," Renstrom said, as he proudly showed 3 On Your Side around the spacious facility.

Renstrom opened his catering business 20 years ago and says during that time, he's built quite the reputation as having great, quality food and a clean kitchen. In fact, look Fat Freddy's Catering up on county inspection reports and you'll see it always earns A ratings.

"We've always been a problem-solver for our customers," he said. "We built the business through word-of-mouth basically."

Word-of-mouth sure has paid off. But Renstrom and his employees say they realized someone was trying to ruin their good name when they started receiving intimidating emails.

Darci Hawthorne works for Fat Freddy's Catering and says the emails are disturbing.

"This I've never seen before," she said. "This type of blatant extortion."

One email states, "I just wanted to alert you that I met someone who is intending to write bad things about your business." That's enough to get any business owner's attention.

Then another email claims, "A friend suffered food poisoning and diarrhea. He intends on writing damaging reviews on as many websites as possible."

The writer of that email went through with the threat.

"This one person posted reviews in Arizona, in Florida, all across the country in one day," Hawthorne said.

Then, after the damaging reviews were posted, another email came. Except this one had a so-called solution.

"So, what I propose is that I get involved as a mediator and simply convince my colleague not to write anything about you publicly," the email says. "If I succeed, I want only $199."

That's right. The writer is demanding $199 to be paid through PayPal in order to remove those fabricated, negative reviews posted on the World Wide Web.

Renstrom says it's a disgusting ploy. "I just don't know," he said, shaking his head. "There's no better word than what it is. It's extortion!"

Renstrom says he didn't pay the money. He says it's a warning not only to business owners but to consumers as well.

"My thing is, it's America," he says. "You're supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. And (on) the Internet, they can say what they want to say and I don't quite get that."

He has a point. So, remember that next time you come across online reviews, and take them with a grain of salt.