Several beer and wine stores in Portland have been targeted in a smear campaign on Facebook, prompting the social media powerhouse to launch an investigation into potentially fraudulent activity.

On Thursday, a few profiles left one-star reviews on the pages of local retailers such as Bier Cellar, RSVP Discount Beverage, Rosemont Market and Bakery, Craft Beer Cellar and Old Port Wine Merchant. Dozens of other one-star reviews have been posted since, leading to arguments about the reviews and who is responsible for them.

The ruckus has erupted into a social media back-and-forth among the retailers, and highlights the importance of online reputations while offering a cautionary tale for businesses that hire contractors to manage their social media presence.

At the center of the controversy is Sam Patel, manager of Friendly Discount Beverage on Forest Avenue. Patel said he hired a Connecticut company to build his store’s website and create a social media presence for Friendly Discount Beverage, which opened in early 2013. After creating a website and profiles on Facebook and Instagram several months ago, the contractor, Jadin Promotions, went rogue, according to Patel.

Jadin Promotions, operated by Jim Adinolfi, has blocked Patel from accessing his own Facebook page and launched a smear campaign against his competitors without his knowledge or consent, said Patel.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Patel, reached at his store on Tuesday afternoon. “This is not how I conduct business. I’m not in the business to slander others. … I’ll do everything in my power to help everyone fix this.”

Messages left for Adinolfi by the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday were not returned. A woman answering the phone refused to answer questions from a reporter and hung up. The company’s Facebook page has been taken down.

Greg Norton, owner of Bier Cellar, a craft beer specialty shop on Forest Avenue, said Patel’s explanation is suspect and Patel needs to accept responsibility for the damage to his competitors’ reputations.

“I have a tough time assuming a company would do this on their own, but to me it’s inconsequential because it’s a company doing their bidding,” Norton said. “So to me it might as well be the company itself. You can’t back away from guilt because you didn’t specifically ask for it.”

Norton first noticed two negative reviews Sunday morning. He had never received a one-star review before and investigated. Both reviews were left without explanation by Facebook users who appeared to be teenage girls from Connecticut. By Tuesday, he had received 40 more, all as suspicious as the first two.

Jacques DeVillier, owner of Old Port Wine Merchant on Commercial Street, tells a similar story. His shop’s Facebook page has received 44 one-star reviews since Thursday.

“There’s 10 places alone on this street that sell beer and wine. I can’t imagine anyone being so desperate for business to do this,” DeVillier said. “This is a community that doesn’t do stuff like this.”

Other retailers, such as Rosemont Market and Bakery and Craft Beer Cellar, received only a handful of one-star reviews, but from the same Facebook profiles.

Norton and DeVillier have a right to be upset, according to Rich Brooks, a social media expert and owner of Flyte New Media in Portland. Businesses these days rely on their online reputations, he said.

“It’s fraudulent – no two ways about it,” he said. “It’s besmirching their good name. They have every right to be upset about this.”

Brooks advises business owners who look to have contractors build a social media presence to do their due diligence, including asking for references and tapping others in the community for recommendations.

Melanie Ensign, a representative of Facebook, said business owners should be very careful about whom they give administrative privileges to manage their Facebook page.

“Creating a Facebook page for your business is easier than you might think and creating it yourself gives you the most control as the page admin,” she said.

“There are five different types of roles for Facebook pages so you can maintain primary control as the admin while still giving your selected helpers access to publish posts, create ads or respond to comments. As an admin, only you can change someone’s role on your page.”

After being contacted by the Press Herald, Ensign said Facebook would investigate Patel’s claims and the alleged fraudulent one-star reviews.

Patel, who said he’s exploring a potential lawsuit against Adinolfi, posted a statement on Friendly Discount Beverage’s Instagram account addressing the accusations and asking for the affected retailers to be patient.

“I want the public and the affected parties to know that Friendly Discount Beverage is investigating the situation and is attempting to contact Facebook to determine if the negative reviews can be removed,” he wrote.

“We ask for the affected retailers to be patient during this process. To the affected parties I want you to know that I would never wish this on another business.”