San francisco restaurants

Extortion scheme threatens reputation of some San Francisco restaurants

The San Francisco District Attorney has issued a warning about an email scam targeting restaurants that threatens to ruin their reputations if they don’t pay out.

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association says the emails were sent this week to restaurants in the city.

“We’ve heard from about 15 to 20 that they’ve received this letter,” said Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, “We’ve started getting them at a variety of different restaurants and so we’ve realized that was a problem.”

Tommy Halvorson, the executive chef and owner of Serpentine was one of the targets.

He says he checked his inbox on Wednesday and an email caught his eye with the subject line.

“This email pops up and it says ‘reputation’ and I was like, oh great, what is this?” Halvorson said.

The email said it was from a Natasha Nixon, a public relations manager and said “I was hired by your competitor to write a negative press release about your restaurant using awful photos of the food containing hair and insects.”

“The email even said I don’t think this is all true, but I’m going to do it anyway,” said Halvorson, who added that the email was asking for money or the fake photos would be sent to 500 news organizations.

“Normally scams don’t elicit any emotional reaction,” Halvorson said, noting that this one was different. “The language was personal and made it more real.”

Turns out Serpentine wasn’t alone.

The Waterbar restaurant on the Embarcadero received the email two days early. Prospect and Scoma’s restaurants were also among the businesses targeted, according to the restaurant association. The GGRA immediately contacted the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.

“Essentially, this is a type of extortion,” said Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, “We will of course take whatever action is necessary and we will coordinate as much as possible with all entities that can investigate these cases.”

At Serpentine, the owner just wants people to know about the scam, in a business where survival relies on reputation.

“We’re a small restaurant, so we’re affected by everything,” Halvorson said. “Ten to fifteen people a night can make or break the difference here, so that’s huge.”

The district attorney’s office says any company that receives the fraudulent email should file a report with the FTC and notify the San Francisco DA.

The Golden Gate Restaurant Association has published a list of tips to avoid falling victim to scams: