Thanks to tips from multiple readers, the Houston Press has learned that at least 60 Facebook pages have been created for Houston restaurants that do not exist. Addresses of real restaurants are used for the fake listings, causing hopeful diners to drive to what they believe is a hot new place, only to discover that it's not there. Additionally, the pages use images taken from the Facebook pages of real restaurants across the country to make the fake ones seem legitimate. Despite the fact that these businesses are not real, thousands of Facebook users have "Liked" the pages and expressed interest in dining there.
Almost every fake restaurant name incorporates the name of a trendy dish, such as Koharu Ramen Bar, Poke Fresh and Rocko's Tacos. "Bop's Gelato," as seen below, is one of the pretend places. The photo shown, though, was stolen from a real gelato shop's Facebook account — SweetCup Gelato at 3939 Montrose. Updated, 8/9/2017, 11:26 a.m.: SweetCup Gelato owner Jasmine Chida says, "Our main concern is for our customers' safety in not going to these addresses." She also says that she has tried multiple times to contact Facebook about the fake restaurant pages and stolen photos but has had no response.
Fake restaurant page "Ant's Acai Bowl" claims that restaurant is located at 9889 Bellaire, Suite E-213. That's the address of Sharetea, an authentic Taiwanese bubble milk tea shop in the International District. We asked Sharetea owner Alfred Leong if he was aware that his restaurant's address was being used for the fraudulent page. "Yeah, I was just made aware of it yesterday when someone posted on their page and tagged us on it, saying the restaurant was fake. That's how I found out, and I was surprised by that." So far, he says, whoever made the Facebook page has not been in contact, nor has he received any mail at that address for the fake restaurant. "This is my first time seeing this," he said, "and I'm not sure why they would do that. The only reason I can think of is as a way to scam people, but I don't know they'd accomplish that by just redirecting them to another business."
There are a few Facebook users in particular who seem to have made it their mission to ensure others are aware that these are not real restaurant pages. We reached out to a few for comment, but have not gotten a response.
We did, however, reach Melanie Ensign of security communications at Facebook, who said she would look into the issue.
We also contacted the Better Business Bureau of Houston to find out if it knew of this scam. This was the first the BBB had heard of it. Leah Napoliello, senior director of investigative services, said, "That's shocking to hear that there are fake restaurant pages popping up on social media nowadays. People need to be very cautious of anything they see on social media at this point, whether it's a restaurant or a business or anything. You want to make sure it really is legitimate before you drive out there or give anyone money. It's always a great idea to call the restaurant in advance and make sure that is a real restaurant. You can also look online for reviews to see what past patrons' experiences have been and verify that it's a real restaurant or business."
Napoliello didn't know what the purpose of creating the fake restaurant pages might be. We, however, have a hypothesis.
People carelessly click the "Like" button on a business that sounds interesting and fun without looking into the business further. Over time, the page accrues thousands of accounts that it can "tag." Once there are enough "likes," the page can tag thousands of Facebook users with scams like ads for sunglasses or other moneymaking schemes. When that happens, ads appear on individual users' timelines, thus propagating the scam.
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Updated, 8/9/2016, 9:15 a.m.: Since this article published, some of our readers have shared their own guesses as to why someone would make these fake restaurant pages. Lisa Hopkins says, "Whoever is starting the pages could also turn around and sell the page with all the 'likes' to another business for a lot of money. You can change the name of a Facebook business page twice."
An anonymous reader thinks it's for data mining. "What they're doing is gaining access to all the Facebook users who "like" the fake restaurant pages. This gives access, in many cases, to those users' friend lists, email addresses, phone numbers, etc. All stuff that can be sold. Also, pictures and account names can be used to make spoof accounts to further data-mine users. They're counting on people who don't have their Facebook account security locked down."
The Facebook post below, compiled by a particularly diligent user, has a long list of restaurants shown as being in Houston that are not real.