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mergedThousands of websites linked to the OrderAhead food delivery service are posing falsely as authorized restaurant websites — diverting traffic from official restaurant sites and taking orders for food without the knowledge of restaurant operators.

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GeekWire was able to order food via several of the rogue OrderAhead sites, including this barbecue chicken lunch combo. The restaurant wasn’t aware that OrderAhead was picking up the food for delivery.

Reports of these sites have been trickling out over the past week, but new research by GeekWire has uncovered a much larger pattern, reaching from New York to the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and Seattle.

Frequently, the unofficial sites outrank the official restaurant sites in search results, using savvy SEO techniques. In some cases, for example, the sites have been connected to the Google Local listings for the restaurants, ensuring that the OrderAhead sites are featured more prominently in search results.

RELATED POST: Hey, restaurants: These sites are sending your customers to OrderAhead without your knowledge

The unofficial sites are registered under a variety of aliases and domain name proxies — under names like Rosario Garnett, Chris Timm and Alan Small — making it more difficult to trace them back to their actual owners. They leverage multiple hosting providers but are all powered by a common infrastructure, pulling CSS, JavaScript and images from the same Amazon Web Services Cloudfront instance.

Records show that the registration of these domains started about a month ago — creating unofficial sites not for just mom-and-pop eateries but also for upscale restaurants, such Wild Ginger, Chinook’s and Crow in Seattle.

Restaurants are unaware

Screen Shot 2015-05-06 at 10.17.25 AM“I have not heard of them, and we have no association with them whatsoever,” said Bruce Michaux, a manager at Wild Ginger in Seattle, which promotes delivery of its food through Caviar. “This is the first I’ve heard of it. My reaction would be surprise, I guess. Yeah, I would hate for anybody to be kind of co-opting our name [without customers knowing]. That’s most upsetting.”

Look out, Burgermaster, you’re next: A site for the beloved Seattle-area drive-in chain been registered by one of the same aliases, but not yet launched.

The Crew, a small, family-owned Korean restaurant in San Francisco’s Sunset District, is another such case from OrderAhead’s home town. When shown the OrderAhead-powered website, owner Andy Jong Su Kim was stunned. He had no idea about the website, which comes up as the first Google search result for The Crew, and said that his restaurant’s only web presence was on Yelp.

The registered sites are concentrated heavily in the cities and regions where OrderAhead has launched its service.

OrderAhead has declined GeekWire’s repeated requests to comment.

A visit to the company’s headquarters on the border of San Francisco’s Mission District and Potrero Hill neighborhoods didn’t yield any answers.

The office, which is just down the hall from Le Cordon Bleu, is fairly spartan – four long tables with the startup’s employees crammed elbow-to-elbow. A well-read copy of “Growth Hacker Marketing” by Ryan Holiday sat at the top of one of the piles of books on bookshelves in the office’s entry.

When asked if anyone would be available to speak on the record, an employee of the company who didn’t identify herself said they “can’t just have people coming around here,” and that OrderAhead would follow up with GeekWire. They have yet to respond.

Backed by big names

OrderAhead is a product of the Y Combinator startup accelerator with a roster of high-profile Silicon Valley investors. Founded in 2011, the company has landed a total of $10.5 million in funding from backers including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Ignition Partners.

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Outside the OrderAhead offices in San Francisco, where GeekWire was told they “can’t just have people coming around here” asking questions.

But the company faces big challenges and pressure to break through in a highly competitive market. OrderAhead is battling a long list of heavily funded competitors in food delivery: Caviar, Munchery, SpoonRocket, Peach, Lish, FoodPanda, Plated, Bitesquad, and Postmates, which just inked deals with Chipotle and Starbucks. Veteran players in the industry include Yelp-owned Eat24, GrubHub, and GrubHub-owned Seamless. Even Uber is getting into the food delivery business.

As part of our research, GeekWire on Wednesday ordered food from four restaurants in Seattle and the Bay Area. In each case, we started with one of the unofficial sites, which linked to the OrderAhead site and app. After we placed our orders, the food was brought to our offices and homes by OrderAhead delivery drivers.

The Crew restaurant charged $15, plus $1.31 in tax, for a barbecue chicken lunch combo and six pieces of gyoza that were picked up by an OrderAhead delivery team and driven to GeekWire. GeekWire paid $17.15 for the food, plus a $6 delivery fee, $1.50 in tax and $3.73 for a tip. The tip goes directly to drivers, which means that OrderAhead got $8.15 from the order – and The Crew had no idea about it.

OrderAhead’s menu for The Crew isn’t even accurate: a lunch from there comes with sides of mixed vegetables, kimchi and steamed rice, while OrderAhead claims that the chicken will come “with salad and rice.”

Another of the establishments was Mel’s Market in Seattle, which has already raised concerns about the unauthorized site taking orders on its behalf. Through the OrderAhead site, we paid $8.64 for a club croissant with smoked turkey, black forest ham and swiss cheese, and $2.88 for Mel’s Fabulous Fries. With tax, a $6 delivery fee and a $1.90 tip, our order came to $20.53 on OrderAhead.

We followed up with Emily Yaw, a corporate accountant at Mel’s Market, who found a copy of the restaurant receipt for our order: $7.99 for the sandwich, $2.49 for the fries, and $1.01 in tax, for a total of $11.49. She said the restaurant was not aware that the order had been placed by an OrderAhead representative. The person who ordered the food must have stood in line at the restaurant as if a regular customer.

“This is super shady,” Yaw said. “We had no idea this website even existed.”

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