At some point, you have occasion to need repairs to your home, appliances, consumer electronics, plumbing or HVAC system. Maybe you’re locked out and needed a locksmith or are planning a move and need a moving company. Whatever the reason, you find yourself online searching for local businesses that can help. But what if the local merchant isn’t actually local, or doesn’t even exist at the address claimed? What if you decide to take bids and call several companies, when you’re actually calling the same people who are using different names?
Fake merchants, fake websites and fake reviews (paid for or via bots) are an increasing problem in the marketplace. In 2019, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) estimated that there were 11 million false business listings on Google Maps with “hundreds of thousands of false listings sprout[ing] on Google Maps each month.” Google is the search engine that handles 90% of the world’s online search queries and 37% of the U.S. digital ad market, making it ripe for misuse by scammers. The businesses most often using these schemes are “internally referred to as ‘duress verticals’ at Google, as they are companies people turn to in emergencies and typically without much time to verify the business’ credibility,” notes WSJ. And these entities may not stick to one industry.
CBC Marketplace’s investigation into a ring of fake appliance repair businesses lead them to the same entity behind a past investigation into a ring of fake locksmith businesses. The Better Business Bureau issued a warning about not only fake businesses, but fake call center or warranty center phone numbers. The fake companies put up ads to be first on search results to hijack calls intended for legitimate warranty or customer service centers. They’ll take your information and credit card payment and never return.
The Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) receives complaints from people about many types of scams using the internet. While fake websites selling nonexistent products are on the rise, consumers’ desires to support local businesses may unwittingly result in a blind trust for any business with a local address. OCP has received complaints involving a moving company using a homeowner’s address, a Bethesda locksmith using a nonexistent address near Bradley Shopping Center, a mobile auto repair shop using the name of a D.C. business with a Maryland phone number and nonexistent Kensington address and numerous roofing companies, with different names, yet using the same phone number and maildrop address. Fake listings harm consumers and legitimate local businesses alike.
In digital advertising, search engine spam is called web spam or spamdexing. Unfortunately, there are many methods that scammers can use to manipulate search engines to push their websites and links to the top spots in search results. This means that when you search for repair companies, the results that appear nearest the top of the page could be legitimate or fraudulent. Spammers are able to buy Google Ads, create fake business listings on Google Maps and register their address through Google’s business services. Google’s verification system uses postcards, phone calls or emails with a unique code to verify the business. As The Verge notes, this verification is easy enough for spammers to bypass as it is meant to avoid automated bot programs, not humans running scams. Google began a program called the Google Guarantee badge of trust which provides extra screening measures and up to $2,000 to customers not happy with the service quality. Due to rampant fraud, Google required this additional vetting in 2017 of listed garage door service companies.
As another report noted, “Spammers will create fake business profiles with a name that’s similar to an existing company in order to confuse and trick consumers. While many of these tricks are against Google’s own policy, the company seems to struggle or [is] unwilling to crack down and eliminate them altogether.” Google makes money off listings and advertising whether the company is legitimate or a scam. According to the WSJ, Google received $116 billion in advertising revenue for 2018. And while Google does have a Business Redress Complaint Form, many report extensive delays before any action is taken on reported scams. Search engines (like Google and Bing) are protected by the Communications Decency Act and can’t be held liable for content posted by users on their site.
The WSJ investigation led to a company in Hanover, Pa. which admitted to creating thousands of phony listings daily. It even buys phone numbers for clients when creating fake listings. While legitimate Search Engine Optimization (SEO) businesses can create listings, this particular business offered $99 for a single listing or $8,599 for a bundle of 100. No legitimate business would need 100 listings online. The end result according to the WSJ is that “a majority of the listings for contractors, electricians, towing and car repair services, movers and lawyers, among other business categories, aren’t located at their pushpins on Google Maps.”
For consumers, web spamming – or spamdexing – means that you never know who you are dealing with, and if there are problems, you don’t know where to find them for follow up warranty work. The scam may send you to a central call center for a lead generation company which then dispatches the jobs to local contractors who could perform shoddy work and overcharge for services. Or it may send you to a business which takes a deposit and never returns. Since you don’t really know who you’re dealing with, tracking that transaction becomes difficult. For local businesses, their real businesses are purposefully drowned out into the second or third page of search results, or worse, their good name is purposefully sabotaged by competitors creating fake listings with misinformation.
How can consumers better protect themselves? Here are some quick tips:
Research the address
- Does it exist and does the Google Earth view show the business or something else?
- Is the address noting a “suite” number but searches have led you to a Post Office, UPS Store, Mail Boxes Etc. or other mail drop location like executive suites?
Research the phone number
- Does it show up in a search?
- If so, does it belong to the company you’re calling?
- When you call, do they say “Acme Locksmiths” or just “locksmith”?
Research the business and complaint history
- Is that exact name showing up anywhere online other than Google Maps or online ads?
- Are there favorable online reviews?
- Does it have a website?
- Did it have a “Google Guarantee” badge?
Get three estimates and worker identification
- When the tech shows up, ask for a business card, ID or other identifier that proves he works for the company you think you’ve called.
- Get the estimate in writing
- Is it on a pre-printed form or is it a form that simply says “Estimate” and lacks any company identifiers?
- Does it provide a license number or other needed credentials?
- Is it a binding estimate or are there loopholes?
One note on your research: many legitimate small businesses will use their home address or maildrop center to do business. When researching, if you discover a home address or mail drop, this alone is not a sign of fraud. However, when taken with other signs of fraud, it may be a useful factor. For more information about this or other consumer questions, contact the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection at email@example.com or visit montgomerycountymd.gov/OCP.