Historical Stock Chart
1 Year : From Feb 2019 to Feb 2020
By Rob Copeland and Katherine Bindley
Out of habit, Nancy Carter, a retired federal employee, turned to Google for help one August evening. She ended the night wishing she hadn't.
Ms. Carter had pulled into her Falls Church, Va., driveway and saw the garage door was stuck. The 67-year-old searched Google and found the listing of a local repair service she had used before. She phoned in a house call.
Google's ubiquitous internet platform shapes what's real and what isn't for more than 2 billion monthly users. Yet Google Maps, triggered by such Google queries as the one Ms. Carter made, is overrun with millions of false business addresses and fake names, according to advertisers, search experts and current and former Google employees.
The ruse lures the unsuspecting to what appear to be Google-suggested local businesses, a Yes, costly and dangerous deception.
A man arrived at Ms. Carter's home in an unmarked van and said he was a company contractor. He wasn't. After working on the garage door, he asked for $728, nearly twice the cost of previous repairs, Ms. Carter said. He demanded cash or a personal check, but she refused. "I'm at my house by myself with this guy," she said. "He could have knocked me over dead."
The repairman had hijacked the name of a legitimate business on Google Maps and listed his own phone number. He returned to Ms. Carter's home again and again, hounding her for payment of a repair so shoddy it had to be redone.
Three years later, Google still can't seem to stop the proliferation of fictional business listings and aggressive con artists on its search engine. The scams are profitable for nearly everyone involved, Google included. Consumers and legitimate businesses end up the losers.
Google handles more than 90% of the world's online search queries, fueling $116 billion in advertising revenue last year. In recent years, it has extended that dominance to local search queries, emerging as the go-to source on everything from late-night food deliveries to best neighborhood plumbers.
Yet despite its powerful algorithms and first-rate software engineers, the company struggles to protect against chronic deceit on Google Maps.
Once considered a sleepy, low-margin business by the company and known mostly for giving travel directions, Google Maps in recent months has packed more ads onto its search queries. It is central to Google parent Alphabet Inc.'s hope to recharge a cresting digital-advertising operation.
Often, Google Maps yields mirages, visible in local business searches of U.S. cities, including Mountain View, Calif., Google's hometown. Of a dozen addresses for personal-injury attorneys on Google Maps during a recent search, only one office was real. A Viennese patisserie was among the businesses at addresses purported to house lawyers. The fakes vanished after inquiries to Google from The Wall Street Journal.
The false listings benefit businesses seeking more customer calls by sprinkling made-up branches in various corners of a city. In other cases, as Ms. Carter discovered, calls to listed phone numbers connect to unscrupulous competitors, a misdirection forbidden by Google rules but sporadically policed by the company.
Hundreds of thousands of false listings sprout on Google Maps each month, according to experts. Google says it catches many others before they appear.
The Justice Department is laying the groundwork for a broad antitrust probe of Google, which will include a look at the company's dominant advertising platform, the Journal has reported. Competitors have complained to antitrust enforcers that Google's expansion into local searches is an example of anticompetitive behavior. A Justice spokesman declined to comment.
Google holds 37% of the U.S. digital ad market, according to researcher eMarketer, though its share is falling to Facebook, Amazon.com Inc. and others.
Online advertising specialists identified by Google as deft fraud fighters estimated that Google Maps carries roughly 11 million falsely listed businesses on any given day, according to a Journal survey of these experts.
They say 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. Shams among these service categories, called "duress verticals" inside Google, can snag people at their most vulnerable.
Google wouldn't provide its own figure, but the company said false map listings are a small percentage of the total. The company paid for a 2017 academic study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, which concluded 0.5% of local searches they examined had yielded spurious results.
Search consultant Michael Blumenthal, of Olean, N.Y., said the study was "totally bogus and meaningless," in part because Google provided limited data and diluted the study with listings for restaurants, hotels and other business that rarely post false locations.
The study's lead author, Danny Huang, said he was a paid Google intern while preparing the research paper. "All I was doing was eyeballing in a scientific manner," he said.
Google Maps director Ethan Russell said in a written statement, "There is no single source of truth for all businesses in all categories."
Type a search query and Google will post at the top of the screen as many as six businesses that bought Google ads. The adjacent map that pops up is supposed to pinpoint bricks-and-mortar businesses in the neighborhood.
A search for plumbers in a swath of New York City found 13 false addresses out of the top 20 Google search results. Only two of the 20 are located where they say and accept customers at their listed addresses, requirements for pushpin listings on Google Maps.
Google Street View, as well as visits and phone calls by the Journal, revealed the deception. These businesses were given an opportunity to dispute the Journal findings about their location.
Mr. Russell, of Google, said the company removed more than 3 million false business listings in 2018. The company last year also disabled 150,000 accounts that uploaded the made-up listings, he said, up 50% from 2017. Google didn't detail its countermeasures, citing security.
A Google spokeswoman said the company wasn't previously aware of some high-risk business categories, including water-damage repair and home listings. Google added new defenses for those businesses after questions about false listings from the Journal, the spokeswoman said.
Any storefront business can register to appear on Google Maps without buying an advertisement. Yet many legitimate businesses find that the best way to stay ahead of the phonies is to buy ads from Google.
"I don't think Google is specifically trying to profit, but at the same time they are profiting," said Molly Youngblood, a digital-marketing consultant from Jacksonville, Fla. Some of her clients turned to her after getting pushed from the top of Google search results by false business listings.
Google's failure to eliminate phony listings puts legitimate businesses at the risk of threats and blackmail by competitors or con artists.
Anas Abuhazim, who runs a cash-for-junk-cars operation in the Chicago suburbs, learned firsthand. His two businesses, Smart Tow Inc. and Cash for Junk Cars LLC, field calls from people looking to dump useless vehicles. His phone operators offer callers around $300 for their wrecks and retrieval within an hour. That leaves Mr. Abuhazim reliant on Google searches.
Every morning, seven days a week, Mr. Abuhazim stuffs an envelope with thousands of dollars to swap for cars, which he mostly sells for parts. Mr. Abuhazim, 35, used to buy ads in the Yellow Pages until Google came along.
Last year, he was approached by a marketing firm that offered to lift his business listings on Google Maps for a fee in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Mr. Abuhazim agreed to the deal. In March, he said, the marketing firm tightened the screws: Hand over half your revenue or else. The firm threatened to bury Mr. Abuhazim's Google listings under hundreds of fictional competitors unless he agreed to the onerous terms.
Mr. Abuhazim refused, and the agency carried out its threat. It unleashed an avalanche of new listings under such names as "Chicago Auto Brokers."
On a recent drive to visit junkyards around the Chicago suburbs, Mr. Abuhazim searched Google on his phone for local competitors. It was easy to see that more than half the search results were fake, he said.
Mr. Abuhazim tried reaching Google to explain his dilemma, but he was repeatedly routed to an offshore call center. Operators, he said, "treated me like I'm stupid." With his businesses pushed off the first page of Google Maps results, incoming calls halved. He said he was on the verge of closing.
Google cleared away some of the false listings after the Journal inquired about Mr. Abuhazim's situation.
"It's less harmful to piss off the government than piss off Google," Mr. Abuhazim said. "The government will hit me with a fine. But if Google suspends my listings, I'm out of a job. Google could make me homeless."
Advertisers of all sizes compete in Google auctions to appear alongside words that potential customers are likely to use in a Google search. Firms pay Google for every click generated by those words.
Prices in business categories that Google has identified as ripe for ad fraud -- specialized attorneys, for instance -- have risen more than 50% in the past two years. Some law firms pay more than $1,000 for every customer who clicks on their website from a Google search.
Before a business appears on its maps, Google typically mails a postcard, phones or sends an email to the firm with a numerical code that must be entered into a Google website. The check system is one way to subvert automated programs that can generate scores of false businesses.
Google's fraud filters sometimes ensnare legitimate businesses, freezing them out until they prove they are real.
Google Maps in March dropped all six offices of personal injury attorney Ian Silverthorne for unspecified "quality issues," he said. Out of suspicion, he searched Google and counted 108 suspect listings in and around Orange County, Calif., where Mr. Silverthorne has an office.
He started calling the listings, he said, and found they went to a competitor, Oakwood Legal Group LLP, which operates a single Orange County office. Oakwood didn't respond to requests for comment.
To be reinstated on Google Maps, Google asked Mr. Silverthorne to send videos from his phone that showed him in his various law offices. After inquiries from the Journal, Google reinstated his listings.
"There will be times we get it wrong," said Mr. Russell, of Google.
Google said it has long battled phantom business listings.
For the past decade, the company has hosted around a dozen volunteers each fall who patrol its pages for forgeries. This digital version of a Neighborhood Watch group, which includes advertising specialists trained by Google, stays at a motel near the corporate campus, dining on egg whites, from cage-free chickens, and other free offerings at company cafeterias.
Mr. Blumenthal, the New York search consultant, has joined several of the annual visits, which are billed as educational trips. He learned, he said, that Google "has obviously chosen not to solve the problem." He skipped last year's junket.
Search-engine consultant Andy Kuiper reported on a Google online forum last fall about a string of bogus appliance businesses popping up in searches around his hometown of Edmonton, Canada. His post triggered anonymous, threatening emails.
"You've made a big mistake," said one email writer, claiming to be from Eastern Europe, "We can play forever." Another read: "I have an army of Indian guys that can turn your life into a nightmare."
Afterward, negative reviews rapidly spread in listings for Mr. Kuiper and his clients. After Mr. Kuiper contacted Google, the internet giant blocked all reviews of his work, including legitimate ones, cramping his business.
"Did they find out who this guy was?" Mr. Kuiper said. "I don't think so."
The Google spokeswoman said only that the email address sending the threats was suspended. Mr. Kuiper's reviews were blocked because of what she described as unrelated defensive efforts.
Google is in "an arms race with an extremely motivated group of scammers who are constantly on the lookout to beat the defenses we build," Mr. Russell, the Google Maps director, said in his statement.
One prolific listings merchant is Mark Luckenbaugh. From a basement smelling of cigarette smoke in Hanover, Pa., he runs a business that can place as many as 3,800 fake Google Maps listings a day.
A self-described high-school dropout, Mr. Luckenbaugh manages 11 people who, he said, "mostly" follow Google rules to help clients get better visibility on Google Maps. A separate staff of 25 in the Philippines employs unsanctioned methods to fill orders for fake listings, he said.
"I'm not going to sit and act like I'm a saint," Mr. Luckenbaugh said. "But I'm not sure you could say I'm a sinner either."
Mr. Luckenbaugh charges $99 for a single made-up listing and up to $8,599 for a 100-pack. The listings are aimed at businesses that want to pepper Google Maps with faux locations to generate more customer calls. Subverting Google's verification system, he said, wasn't hard.
His employees submit fake business listings to Google, scraping real addresses from commercial real-estate listings and creating such search-friendly names as "Best Personal Injury Attorney." He also buys phone numbers, available cheap online, to attach to the listings.
When Google automatically calls the newly-purchased numbers, Mr. Luckenbaugh's employees retrieve the code to activate the listing. The Google Maps pushpins appear soon after. The listed phone numbers can be routed to Mr. Luckenbaugh's clients.
"I know Google knows," Mr. Luckenbaugh said. The method leaves "a huge footprint, and they're just letting it happen," he added.
The Google spokeswoman said the company was investigating Mr. Luckenbaugh's operation.
Mr. Luckenbaugh said tens of thousands of the listings have since disappeared.
Write to Rob Copeland at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 20, 2019 11:06 ET (15:06 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.