Millions of Fake Listings Found on Google Maps

Why defeating and removing scammers is an ongoing problem for Google Maps: Internet Scambusters #879

Google Maps (and other mapping software) have changed our lives for the better and made shopping easier and, often, cheaper. But not always.

The Internet search giant recently confirmed that it has removed 11 million fake listings from its mapping software but added that the scam is an ongoing problem.

In this week’s issue, we’ll explain what’s happened, and how businesses and consumers can avoid the tricksters.

Let’s get started…

Millions of Fake Listings Found on Google Maps

When you’re looking for a local store, restaurant, contractor or other business to visit, do you turn to Google Maps?

If so, you need to know that, while the locations might be accurate, some of the listings may not be.

According to new research, there are (or were, depending on whether Google has sorted it out or not) millions of fake business listings. In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report claimed there were as many as 11 million fakes!

Google was swift to react when the WSJ reported the issue, removing the identified fakes, but that doesn’t mean more won’t appear since it’s next to impossible to identify the fakes until they’re online.

Past experience suggests their internal systems are able to flag 90% of phonies, but the remaining 10% of 11 million would leave a sizeable number (1.1 million) undetected until they’re online and identified.

Ethan Russell, Director of Product, explained in a subsequent blog post: “We get millions of contributions each day (like new business profiles, reviews, star ratings, and more) and the vast majority of these contributions are helpful and accurate. But occasionally, business scammers take advantage of local listings to make a profit.

“They do things like charge business owners for services that are actually free, defraud customers by posing as real businesses, and impersonate real businesses to secure leads and then sell them.”

Another motive identified by the newspaper was to try to inflict damage on legitimate businesses. For example, disreputable businesses would list the names of their competitors but give the wrong telephone number or address.

Or, they might actually use the name of a genuine business but direct potential customers to themselves, where they proceed to do a bad job and overcharge.

This is an ongoing challenge for the Internet giant. Tech site Engadget reports that last year, the firm took down 3 million phony listings and disabled 150,000 accounts.

“We know that a small minority will continue trying to scam others,” Russell added, “so there will always be work to do, and we’re committed to keep doing better.”

What To Do

So, how can you protect yourself from future scams?

For businesses, the key defense is to list your own business before anyone else does. It’s currently free.

When you’re listed, you can go through the Google Maps verification process, which signals to consumers that your business has been verified by the mapping and search outfit.

Until you’ve done this, says Google, you can’t edit the information that’s currently there, whether you or someone else posted it.

Verification also makes businesses twice as likely to be considered by reputable users, the firm says.

Verification involves requesting, receiving, and reading a confirmation postcard from Google, though it’s also possible to get verification by phone, email, or SMS text.

Whatever method is used, the information you receive will contain a code that has to be keyed in to confirm your address when you sign into Google.

Policies and Tools

Russell explained: “Although it’s important that we make it easy for legitimate businesses to get their business profiles on Google, we’ve also implemented strict policies and created tools that enable people to flag these issues so we can take action.

“It’s a constant balancing act, and we’re continually working on new and better ways to fight these scams using a variety of ever-evolving manual and automated systems.”

But he was reluctant to share too many details about these efforts to avoid running into the chance they might actually help scammers find new ways to game their systems.

The firm has a dedicated team to tackle the scammers and remove listings that violate its policies. And it’s introduced a new and more effective way to report suspicious listings.

It has also published guidelines on the best way for legitimate firms to represent their businesses.

For consumers, the most important step you can take to protect yourself is to be aware of the possibility that, although unlikely, a listing that interests you could be a fake. So, before contacting the business, do a quick search on their name online and make sure it lines up with the map listing.

If you suspect a Google Maps listing may be a fake or you fall victim to a scam as a result, you can complete a redressal complaint form.

Alert of the Week

Another big data breach. Personal information of about almost 5 million customers, businesses, and workers of food delivery app DoorDash have been hacked. About 100,000 delivery drivers had their driver’s license details exposed.

They’re not the first food delivery app to get hacked (an earlier breach at EatStreet exposed 6 million records), but that’s of no comfort to the latest victims.

If you’ve done business with or worked for this organization, visit the following page for information on what to do next: Important Security Notice About Your DoorDash Account.

That’s all for today — we’ll see you next week.