Thousands of fake companies added to Google Maps every month
Local businesses on Google Maps aren’t always as local as they seem. Tens of thousands of bogus listings are added to Google Maps every month, directing browsing traffic towards fraudulent schemes, finds a team of researchers at Google and the University of San Diego, California.
As an example, a fraudster might list a locksmiths at a location on Google Maps when they don’t actually have premises there. When a potential customer calls the phone number listed, they are put through to a central call centre that hires unaccredited contractors to do jobs all over. Often the customer ends up being coerced into paying more than the original quoted price.
To analyse the scope of this abuse, the group looked at over 100,000 listings that the Google Maps team had identified as abusive between June 2014 and September 2015. The fraudulent listings most often belonged to services like locksmiths, plumbers and electricians.
Overall, less than one per cent of Google Maps listings were fraudulent, but pockets of fake listings emerged. In West Harrison, New York, for example, more than 80 per cent of locksmiths listed were scams. The US was home to over half of the fraudulent listings, followed by India with 17.5 per cent.
The team presented their findings at the World Wide Web Conference in Perth, Australia, this week.
“People who need assistance can unfortunately be easily exploited. If you’re locked out of your house you won’t necessarily check all of the customer reviews – you just want to get inside,” says Michael Levi at Cardiff University, UK.
Google tries to minimise this abuse of maps by sending out verification postcards to locations people claim online. Users have to enter a unique code on the postcard before they can control the listing.
However, the study found that fraudsters could exploit a loophole to get around this. They could rent a post office box in the area to register their business and pick up the postcard. Google Maps then lets businesses change their address within the same zip code without further verification, so they could claim another nearby address on the map.
In another scam, people falsely list themselves as owners of genuine hotels or restaurants shown on Google Maps. They then call the real business and trick an employee into giving them the postcard’s verification code. This allows them to control the business’s listing, for example changing the listed website to their own booking or referral site. When customers try to make reservations or order food, the scammer gets a cut for acting as a middleman.
“Clearly there is a balance to be struck between making it easy enough for legitimate businesses to use Google Maps, versus making it difficult for illegitimate businesses to exploit it,” says Levi. It’s not clear exactly what tools Google uses to detect abuse, he says, so it’s hard to say if they’re doing enough.
It wasn’t revealed how many cases of abuse Google finds in total. The researchers looked only at listings that were removed by Google after appearing online, but 85 per cent of all cases identified as bogus are caught by Google before their listings are live.