The Lights Are on but Nobody’s Home: Fake Listings on Google Maps and Google Business Listings Can Bring Your Brand Down

June 25, 2019

By David Posteraro

“Nothing succeeds like address.” – Fran Lebowitz

“There is no there there.” – Gertrude Stein, “Everybody’s Autobiography”

brand enforcementBuilding a brand, creating brand acceptance, and engendering brand loyalty takes time, talent, effort and expense. In an earlier post, we wrote about the problems of fake reviews on Amazon and other platforms. A Wall Street Journal investigation recently reported on another problem of fakes that can devalue your brand — phony business listings on Google Maps. These bogus listings benefit the perpetrators by creating an impression of substance and stability. But like Gertrude Stein’s famous quote, there are no “theres” there. The business addresses have no real physical presence, and have been manipulated by scammers or competitors to compete and lure unsuspecting consumers for fraudulent purposes to mistake a competitor for your brand.

According to the Journal article, Google Maps is awash with such fake business listings and phone numbers that reroute to competing and often non-existent businesses. The enormity of the problem is reflected in the ubiquity of the Google search. Consider that 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.” Yet, the Journal investigation found that there are as many as 11 million falsely listed businesses currently on Google Maps. For example, it found that 13 of the top 20 results for plumbers in New York City returned businesses with fake addresses. And in Mountain View, California – home to Google headquarters – of a dozen addresses for personal-injury lawyers, only one was real.

The deception extends beyond the initial Maps location. As an example, fake home service contractors (i.e. plumbers, locksmiths, window repair, electricians, etc.) will list an address where an actual, legitimate local contractor is located, and commonly use VoIP phone services to impersonate a local area code and exchange number. Unsuspecting customers will be duped into paying exorbitant rates for even a simple service, such as being locked out of their home or fixing a broken window, by non-accredited and/or unlicensed contractors.

The problem is not limited to Google Maps. The problem plays out on Google’s My Business listings, as well. Scam artists, disgruntled employees or unscrupulous competitors can, through a variety of ways, edit an existing Google My Business by replacing correct information with wrong information.

In the hospitality industry, to take one example, abusive reservation services will claim the Google My Business listing of a real restaurant or hotel. That triggers Google to send a verification postcard to the actual business. A few days later, the abusive listing service calls the actual restaurant or hotel and tricks someone there into telling them the verification PIN on the Google postcard. With the PIN, the abusive reservation service takes over the Google My Business account of the real business, replacing the actual listing with their newly verified listing. The new listing then links to the abusive listing service, where customers can still make restaurant and hotel reservations at the real businesses, but must pay a significant transaction or reservation fee.

While Google’s own guidelines prohibit these practices, the Journal investigation shows that they continue to be a problem for legitimate businesses and consumers alike. You can remove or report bogus listings to Google, but protecting your brand requires continued diligence. For ways to protect and enforce your brand or for additional information or assistance, contact David Posteraro at drp@kjk.com or 216.736.7218, or reach out to any of KJK’s Brand Enforcement professionals.


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