Extortion scheme threatens reputation of some San Francisco restaurants

The San Francisco District Attorney issued a warning about an email scam targeting restaurants, which threatens to ruin their reputations if they don't pay out money. 

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

"We've heard from about 15 to 20 that they received this letter," said Gwyneth Borden, Executive Director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, "We started getting them from a variety of different restaurants and so we realized it was a problem."

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

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

"This email comes up and it said "reputation" and I was like, oh great what is this?" Halvorson said. 

The email said it was from a Natasha Nixon, a PR manager and stated "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 any of this is true but I'm going to do it anyway," said Halvorson who added that the email asked for money or the fake photos would be sent to 500 news media companies.

"Normally scams don't elicit any emotional response," said Halvorson, noting this one felt different, "The language felt personal and so it made it feel more real."

It turns out Serpentine wasn't alone.

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

"Essentially it's a type of extortion," said Alex Bastian, spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, "We of course are going to take all the steps necessary and we are going to be coordinating as much as possible with all the entities that can investigate these cases."

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

"We're a small restaurant, so we're affected by everything," said Halvorson, "Ten to fifteen people per night could make or break the difference here, so it's a huge deal."

The District Attorney's office says any business that receives the scam email should file a report with the FTC and notify the San Francisco DA.

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