Report: Fake Google Maps Listings Ensnare Consumers, Harm Legitimate Businesses

Photo by Louis Hansel.

“Chronic” local listings fraud on Google Maps, where con artists pose as handymen and other local service providers, sometimes stealing the names of legitimate operations, is endangering consumers and sucking business away from viable local businesses, the Wall Street Journal reported.

As Google seeks to prop up its lucrative but “cresting” search business and consolidate its lead in local, the tech giant is struggling to address the fraud issue and perhaps even to care about it.

As local search expert Mike Blumenthal has pointed out in the case of reviews, “Google helped create” the local fraud ecosystem and “benefits from it.” With search results that favor a high volume of reviews and few measures in place to identify and take them down, unwitting consumers are likely to keep returning to Google for local recommendations, sometimes finding themselves on the losing end of a system where their attention is the key to Google’s profits.

The Journal documents its own efforts to find fake local entities on Google. It doesn’t seem to have been hard. Searches in Google’s own Mountain View, California, turned up scores of nonexistent businesses that disappeared after the newspaper phoned Google for a comment on them. In one search, a query for personal-injury lawyers resulted in a dozen results, only one of which was authentic.

The report, citing experts, says fresh fake listings on Google appear in the hundreds of thousands each month. That indicates YouTube isn’t the only of Google parent company Alphabet’s properties that is facing a major content moderation problem. The flagship search business will need a fixing up, too.

Google issued a response to the report and detailed the measures it takes to combat fraud. Similar to other arguments made about content moderation, the company underscored how many fake listings it took down last year (3 million) and that it caught more than 90% of those before people alerted the company to their existence. Still, experts told the Journal there are “11 million falsely listed businesses” on the platform “any given day.”

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He joined Street Fight as a contributing writer in 2015, has compiled the daily newsletter since 2016, and has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Follow him on Twitter @joe_zappa, and shoot him an email at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.
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