As many as 11 million false business could be masquerading in plan site on Google Maps. “These scammers use a wide range of deceptive techniques to try to game our system,” acknowledged Ethan Russell, product director for Google Maps, adding that “as we shut them down, they change their techniques, and the cycle continues.”
After a Wall Street Journal investigation into the “millions of business listings on Google Maps that are fake,” the search giant quickly responded to explain “how we fight fake business profiles on Google Maps.” Each month, Google adds more than 200 million places to its map service and claims to “connect people to businesses more than nine billion times, including more than one billion phone calls and three billion requests for directions.”
The problem is that, according to the WSJ, “hundreds of thousands of false listings sprout on Google Maps each month,” and so these queries are “overrun with millions of false business addresses and fake names… luring the unsuspecting to what appear to be Google-suggested local businesses, a costly and dangerous deception.”
The investigation into Google Maps has unearthed a cat and mouse game, with scammers gaming Google’s security checks. Infrequently used but urgent businesses—think plumbers, electricians, car mechanics—are most prone to issues. Despite implementing “policies and tools that enable people to flag these issues,” Google admits “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.”
Scammers on Google Maps “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. Even though fake business profiles are a small percentage of the overall business profiles on Google, local business scammers have been a thorn in the internet’s side for over a decade. They even existed back when business listings were printed, bound and delivered to your doorstep. We take these issues very seriously and have been using a wide array of techniques and approaches to limit abuse on our platforms.”
With the U.S. Department of Justice gearing up an antitrust probe into Google, the proliferation of the mapping service into local communities will be a factor. Inevitably, misleading information down at this level skews local trade and creates real-world risk.
Beyond financial scams, there are also clear physical dangers in fake businesses seeking to legitimize their activities by appearing on a quasi-official local Google search. And where those scammers might provide a service in the home, those risks reach a different level. As the WSJ puts it, “Google’s ubiquitous internet platform shapes what’s real and what isn’t for more than two billion monthly users.”
According to Google’s own data, in 2018 they “took down more than 3 million fake business profiles––and more than 90 percent of those business profiles were removed before a user could even see the profile, and disabled more than 150,000 user accounts that were found to be abusive—a 50 percent increase from 2017.”
“These scams are profitable for nearly everyone involved, Google included,” the WSJ points out. “Consumers and legitimate businesses end up the losers.”
As far as Google is concerned, “every month Maps is used by more than a billion people around the world… We know that a small minority will continue trying to scam others, so there will always be work to do and we’re committed to doing better.”
The Big Tech response across search and social media to criticism and scrutiny is scale and convenience. Ultimately users around the world signal their acceptance of their issues with their increasing use of the platforms. And while there will be investigations and increasing pressure on all of the platforms to continually enhance the security and integrity of what they do, ultimately the real question is whether they have become too successful and wealthy to be genuinely held to account.