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Millions of business listings on Google Maps are fake and Google profits



Out of habit, Nancy Carter, a retired federal employee, turned to Google for help one August evening. She ended the night and wished she didn't have it.

Ms. Carter had pulled into her Falls Church, Va., Driveway and saw the garage door. The 67-year-old sought Google and found the listing of a local repair service she had used before. She called a house call.

Google's ubiquitous Internet platform forms what is right and what is not for more than 2 billion monthly users. But Google Maps, triggered by such Google queries as one wife Carter made, has been exceeded by millions of fake business addresses and fake names, according to advertisers, search experts, and current and past Google employees.

Ruse lures it unsuspectingly what appears to be Google-proposed local businesses, an expensive and dangerous deception.

A man arrived at Mrs Carter's home in an unmarked van and said he was a contractor. He wasn't. After working on the garage door, he asked for $ 728, almost twice as much as previous repairs, Carter said. He demanded cash or a personal check, but she declined. "I'm at home with this guy," she said. "He could have beaten me over death."

The repairman had hijacked the name of a legitimate company on Google Maps and listed his own phone number. He returned to Mrs. Carter's home again and again and beat her for the payment of a reprehensible repair so that it would redone.

Three years later, Google still doesn't seem to stop the spread of fictitious business listings and aggressive con artists on its search engine. The scams are profitable for almost everyone involved, including Google. Consumers and legitimate companies end up with the losers.

Google handles more than 90% of the world's online searches spreading $ 1

16 billion. Dollars in advertising revenue last year. In recent years, it has expanded this domination to local searches that arise as the source of everything from delayed food deliveries to the best neighborhood lifters.

Despite its powerful algorithms and premium software engineers, the company is struggling to protect against chronic deception on Google Maps.

A user is searching for a local business. Google is populating a map with what appears to be nearby lists.

Business listings that use fake addresses are often displayed over real companies.

Companies bid each other to pay Google for advertising to appear on the list.

A user is searching for a local business. Google elaborates on a map of what appears to be nearby lists.

Business listings that use fake addresses are often displayed over real companies.

Companies bid each other to pay Google to be announced at the top of the list.

A user is searching for a local business. Google elaborates on a map of what appears to be nearby lists.

Business listings that use fake addresses are often displayed over real companies.

Companies bid each other to pay Google to be announced at the top of the list.

A user is searching for a local business. Google elaborates on a map of what appears to be nearby lists.

Business listings that use fake addresses are often displayed over real companies.

Companies bid each other to pay Google for advertising to appear on the list.

Once considered a sleepy, low margin business of the company and mostly known for driving directions, Google Maps has in recent months packed more ads on its searches. It's central to Google parent

Alphabet
Inc.


GOOG 0.46%

hopes to recharge a cresting digital advertising operation.

Often, Google Maps provides burnouts that can be seen in local business searches by US cities, including Mountain Se, California, Google's hometown. Of a dozen addresses for lawyers for personal injury on Google Maps during a recent search, only one office was right. A Viennese confectioner was among the companies that referred to house lawyers. The fakes disappeared after contacting Google from The Wall Street Journal.

The fake listings enjoy businesses looking for more customer conversations by spraying compound branches into different corners of a city. In other cases, as Mrs Carter discovered, calls to called telephone numbers call discriminatory competitors, a misdirection prohibited by Google rules, but occasionally polished by the company.

Hundreds of thousands of fake listings germinate on Google Maps every month, according to experts. Google says it catches many others before they look.

The Ministry of Justice lays the ground for a broad antitrust probe at Google, which will include a look at the company's dominant advertising platform, the Journal reported. Competitors have complained of antitrust enforcers that Google's expansion in local searches is an example of anti-competitive behavior. A lawyer spokesman refused to comment.

Share your thoughts

Have you discovered fake business listings on Google Maps in your neighborhood? Join the conversation below.

Google holds 37% of the US digital ad market, according to the researcher eMarketer, although its share is falling

Facebook

Amazon.com
Inc.

and other.

Online advertising specialists identified by Google as deft scams estimate that Google Maps carries approx. 11 million counterfeit listed companies on a given day, according to a journal survey by these experts.

They say a majority of listings for contractors, electricians, towing and car repair services, movers and lawyers, among other business categories, are not placed on their pushpins on Google Maps. Shams among these service categories, called "duress verticals" inside Google, can snag people at their most vulnerable.

Google would not give its own figure, but the company said fake card lists are a small percentage of the total. The company paid for a 2017 academic study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, who concluded that 0.5% of the local searches they examined had yielded false results.

Search consultant Michael Blumenthal, from Olean, NY, said the study was "totally fake and pointless" partly because Google provided limited data and diluted the survey with lists of restaurants, hotels and other stores that rarely posted fake sites.

The main author of the study, Danny Huang, said he was a paid Google trainee while preparing the research archive. "All I did was eye-catching in a scientific way," he said.

Google Maps Director Ethan Russell said in a written statement: "There is no single source of truth for all companies in all categories."

Wanted: Plumber

Enter a search query, and Google sends at the top of the screen as many as six companies that purchased Google ads. The adjacent card that emerges must identify brick and mortar companies in the neighborhood.

A search for pipe companies in a part of New York City found 13 fake addresses out of the top 20 Google search results. Only two of the 20 are located where they say and accept customers at their specified addresses, pushpin list requirements on Google Maps.

The company is located where it says, but does not accept customers at the specified address, a violation of Google's guidelines.

Businesses are not located where their Google Maps listing says. Some phone numbers are routed to call centers or to various plumbing installers.

Google Maps Search for & # 39; HVAC & # 39; *

Hub Plumbing Installations

Star Cities Plumbing Installations

Bargain Plumbing Installations

M & T Plumbing Installations

Park Ave Plumbing Cooling

J Ell Plumbing Installation & Heating [19659051] University Place Plumbing Heating

RR Plumbing Roto Rooter †

Ashland Plumbing Corporation

Greenwich Plumbing Installation

Plumbing Heating

The company is located where it says but does not accept customers the specified address, a violation of Google's guidelines.

Businesses are not located where their Google Maps listing says. Some phone numbers are routed to call centers or to various plumbing installers.

Google Maps Search for & # 39; HVAC & # 39; *

Hub Plumbing Installations

Star Cities Plumbing Installations

Bargain Plumbing Installations

M & T Plumbing Installations

Park Ave Plumbing Cooling

J Ell Plumbing & Heating

University Place Plumbing Heating

RR VVS Roto Rooter †

Ashland Plumbing Corporation

Greenwich Plumbing Installation

Plumbing Campaigns

KBM Brand Plumbing Installations Heating

The company is located where it say, but do not accept customers at the specified address, a violation of Google's guidelines.

Businesses are not located where their Google Maps listing says. Some phone numbers are routed to call centers or to various plumbing installers.

Google Maps Search for & # 39; HVAC & # 39; *

Hub Plumbing Installations

Star Cities Plumbing Installations

Bargain Plumbing Installations

M & T Plumbing Installations Cooling

J Ell Plumbing & Heating

University Place Plumbing Heating [19659080] RR VVS Roto Rooter †

Ashland Plumbing Corporation

Greenwich Plumbing

Plumbing Heating

The company is located where it says but does not accept customers at the specified address, a Google violation guidelines.

Businesses are not located where their Google Maps listing says. Some phone numbers are routed to call centers or to various plumbing installers.

Google Maps Search for & # 39; HVAC & # 39; *

Hub Plumbing & Mechanical

Star Cities Plumbing

Bargain Plumbing

M & T Plumbing

Park Ave Plumbing Cooling

J Ell Plumbing & Heating

] University Place Plumbing Heating

RR Plumbing Roto Rooter †

Ashland Plumbing Corporation

Greenwich Plumbing Installation

Plumbing Heating

Google Street View, as well as visit and phone calls by Journal, revealed fraud. These companies were given the opportunity to contest the journal's performance on their location.

J Ell plumbing and heating

University Place plumbing

Greenwich plumbing installations

J Ell plumbing installations

University Place plumbing

Greenwich plumbing installations

Greenwich plumbing installations [19659105] Greenwich plumbing installations

Greenwich plumbing installations

Greenwich plumbing 19659101] Mr. Russell, from Google, said the company removed more than 3 million fake business listings in 2018. Last year, the company also disabled 150,000 accounts that uploaded scheduled listings, he said, up by 50% from 2017. Google did not tell its countermeasures quotes security.

A Google spokesman said the company was not previously aware of any high-risk groups, including repair of water damage and house records. Google added new defense for these companies to questions about bogus listings from the magazine, the spokeswoman said.

Any store on the store can sign up to appear on Google Maps without buying an ad. Nevertheless, many legitimate companies find that the best way to stay on for phonies is to buy ads from Google.

"I don't think Google is specifically trying to profit but at the same time they earn," said Molly Youngblood, a digital marketing consultant from Jacksonville, Fla. Some of her clients turned to her after being pushed from the top of Google's search results by fake business listings.

Junkpile

Google's failure to remove false lists puts legitimate businesses at risk of threats and extortion of competitors or con artists.

Anas Abuhazim, who runs a cash-for-junk car operation in the Chicago suburbs, learned first hand. His two companies, Smart Tow Inc. and Cash for Junk Cars LLC, calling from people looking to dump useless vehicles. His phone operators offer callers about $ 300 for their wreck and pickup within an hour. It leaves Mr Abuhazim dependent on Google searches.

Every morning, seven days a week, Mr. Abuhazim an envelope with thousands of dollars in exchange for cars that he mostly sells to parts. Mr. Abuhazim, 35, used to buy ads in the yellow pages until Google came together.

Joseph Perkins, right and Anas Abuhazim this month in Chicago Heights, Ill.


Photo:

Taylor Glascock to the Wall Street Journal

Last year, he was contacted by a marketing company who offered to lift his business listings on Google Maps for a fee of tens of thousands of dollars.

Mr. Abuhazim favored the agreement. In March, he said that the marketing company was tightening the screws: Survive half of your revenue or otherwise. The company threatened to bury Mr. Abuhazim's Google listings under hundreds of fictitious competitors unless he accepted the tough conditions.

Mr. Abuhazim refused and the agency threatened. It released an avalanche of new lists under such names as "Chicago Auto Brokers."

On a recent drive to visit junkyards around the Chicago suburbs, Mr. Abuhazim Google on its phone for local competitors. It was easy to see that more than half of the search results were fake, he said.

Mr. Abuhazim tried to reach Google to explain his dilemma, but he was repeatedly sent to an offshore call center. Operators he said, "treated me like I'm stupid." With its companies pushing the first page of the Google Maps results, incoming calls were halved. He said he was closing.

Google cleared some of the fake lists after the Journal asked about Mr Abuhazim's situation.

"It is less harmful to piss off the government than piss off Google," said Mr Abuhazim. "The government will fine me. But if Google suspends my listings, I'm out of a job. Google could make me homeless."

Anas Abuhazim, owner of Smart Tow Inc. and Cash for Junk Cars LLC show how much money he spent just over a year on Google advertising.


Photo:

Taylor Glascock to the Wall Street Journal

Advertisers of all sizes compete in Google auctions to appear alongside words that potential customers are likely to use in a Google search. Businesses pay Google for each click generated by those words.

For example, prices in business categories that Google has identified as mature for ad-fraud specialized lawyers have increased more than 50% over the past two years. Some law firms pay more than $ 1,000 for each customer who clicks on their website from a Google search.

Before a business appears on its cards, Google typically mails a postcard, phone, or sends an email to the company with a numeric code to be entered on a Google site. The control system is a way to undermine automated programs that can generate many fake businesses.

Google's fraud filters sometimes allow legitimate companies to freeze them until they show that they are genuine.

In March, Google Maps dropped all six offices of personal injury lawyer Ian Silverthorne for unspecified "quality issues," he said. Without suspicion, he searched Google and counted 108 suspected lists in and around Orange County, California, where Mr. Silverthorne has an office.

He began calling the performances, he said, and found that they went to a competitor, Oakwood Legal Group LLP, which operates a single Orange County office. Oakwood did not respond to requests for comments.

Mechanic Abdei Safi, left, updates Anas Abuhazim for repairs to one of his trucks.


Photo:

Taylor Glascock to the Wall Street Journal

To get reinstated on Google Maps, Google asked Mr. Silverthorne about sending videos from his phone that showed him in his various law offices. Following inquiries from the magazine, Google repeated its listings.

"There will be times when we get it wrong," said Mr. Russell, from Google.

& # 39; A Nightmare & # 39;

Google said it has long turned phantom business listings.

Over the last few decades, the company has hosted a dozen volunteers each autumn, patrolling its pages for counterfeiting. This digital version of a Neighborhood Watch group, which includes Google Advertising Specialists, stays with a motel near its corporate campus, egg whites dining, bureless chickens, and other free cafeteria offers.

Mr. Blumenthal, New York Search Consultant, has joined several of the annual visits that are billed as training trips. He learned, he said, Google "has obviously chosen not to solve the problem." He skipped last year's junket.

The Personal Injury Law Office was listed on Google Maps at the same address for Alexander's Patisserie in Mountain View, Calif. The lawyer's list has since been removed.


Photo:

Google

Search Engine Consultant Andy Kuiper reported in an autumn issue in Google about a number of fake device companies popping up in searches around his hometown of Edmonton, Canada. His post triggered anonymous, threatening emails.

"You made a big mistake," said an email writer claiming to be from Eastern Europe, "We can play forever." Another reader: "I have an army of Indian boys who can make your life a nightmare."

Then, negative reviews quickly spread in records to Mr Kuiper and his clients. After Mr. Kuiper contacted Google, blocked the internet giant from all reviews of his work, including legitimate, cramped business.

"Did they find out who this guy was?" Said Mr Kuiper. "I don't think so."

The Google spokeswoman only said that the email address that sent the threats was suspended. Mr. Kuiper's reviews were blocked because of what she described as non-related defensive efforts.

Google is in "a weapons race with an extremely motivated group of scammers who are constantly looking to beat the defenses we build," said Mr. Russell, Google Maps Director, in his opinion.

A productive seller is Mark Luckenbaugh. From a cellar that smells of cigarette smoke in Hanover, Pa., He drives a company that can place as many as 3,800 fake Google Maps daily.

An independent modest high school dropout, Mr. Luckenbaugh manages 11 people, whom he said "mostly" follow Google rules to help customers get better visibility on Google Maps. A separate staff of 25 in the Philippines uses unused methods to fill orders for fake listings, he said.

"I don't want to sit and act like I'm a saint," Luckenbaugh said. "But I'm not sure you can say I'm also a sinner."

Mr. Luckenbaugh charges $ 99 for a single list and up to $ 8,599 for a 100 pack. The listings are aimed at companies that want to pepper Google Maps with faux sites to generate more customer calls. Subverting Google's verification system, he said, was not difficult.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks May 7 at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California.


Photo:

josh edelson / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

His employees send fake business listings to Google, scrap real addresses from commercial property listings, and create such reputable names as best personal injury lawyer. He also buys phone numbers that are available cheap online to attach the list.

When Google automatically calls the newly acquired numbers, Mr. Luckenbaugh employees code to enable listing. Google Maps pushpins appear shortly after. The specified telephone numbers can be assigned to Mr. Luckenbaugh's customers.

"I know Google knows," said Luckenbaugh. The method leaves "a big footprint and they just do it," he added.

Google spokesman said the company was investigating Mr. Luckenbaugh's operation.

Mr. Luckenbaugh said that tens of thousands of listings have since disappeared.

Write to Rob Copeland at rob.copeland@wsj.com Katherine Bindley at katie.bindley@wsj.com


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