For as long as Google Maps (and other digital mapping services) have existed, there have been fake listings. The most notable example was a scam where a centralized operation would mass-produce fake locksmith listings advertising low rates, then jacking up prices as poor sods left out of house or car get desperate. These days, the directory battlefield has expanded across different high-cost industries with devastating tactics deployed against businesses and the public while placing livelihoods on the line.
The Wall Street Journal took in a few case studies on how and why Google Map listings are faked and to what effect. For example, addresses may be gamed for a business to be placed near or at the same location as a competitor, regardless if they have a location there. In another case, companies bid for the top position in search results — the biggest source of referrals for many businesses.
One victim to a deception effort had paid marketers "tens of thousands of dollars" to increase the visibility of his two Chicagoland junk car-buying businesses on Google Maps. The marketers then turned around and demanded half his revenue, which he refused to give. They then flooded the app with fake listings, leaving him with only half the inquiring calls he used to get and a balance sheet full of red ink. Repeated attempts to contact Google did not lead to any resolution until the Journal intervened.
In Orange County, California, the owner of a law firm had to film a video tour of his six area branches to reinstate his Google Maps listings. He found out that a competitor had posted 108 local listings, all of them with phone numbers that led back to that firm's one office in the county.
Other affected trades include moving, towing, vehicle repair, utility repair, and general contract work.
Scammers have been aggressive in keeping their workflow path clear. One of them anonymously intimidated an Edmonton, Alberta-based search engine expert after he posted about dubious businesses in a Google-hosted forum. After a wave of negative reviews hit his consultancy business, Google shut off the reviews section from all users, including legitimate users.
While it is free to list a business on Google Maps, boosting rankings can cost a pretty penny, especially for those in what Google considers to be in highly-fraudulent categories — referral costs for legal advisers have spiked more than 50% in the past 2 years with select law firms paying over $1,000 just for one click.
Digital ad market researchers surveyed by the Journal estimate that Google Maps will contain 11 million fake listings on average. For every one Google wipes off thanks to preventative screening, reporting, and verification — the company claims it removed 3 million fakers last year — new ones pop up in their place.
But the company could be doing more against the epidemic. One person who provides fake listings for $99 apiece said that Google is "just letting it happen." Addresses can be harvested from commercial real estate sellers while phone numbers can be picked up for cheap, subverting Maps's safeguards. While Google has started taking down his listings by the tens of thousands, you might be unlucky enough to come across just one bad result that could ruin your day.
- The Wall Street Journal