Google Maps has a fake business listing problem

Google Maps is plagued with fake listings of businesses and phone numbers that redirect to competing businesses, according to one the Wall Street newspaper report. Hundreds of thousands of fake ads appear on Google Maps every month, with the Newspaper estimating that the service currently has around 11 million falsely listed businesses.

Although Google claims in a 2017 self-funded university study that only 0.5% of local searches are fake listings, a separate survey conducted by the Newspaper suggested otherwise. While looking for plumbers in New York, the Newspaper found 13 of the top 20 Google search results listing fake addresses, and only two were from real companies that actually adhered to Google’s guidelines, which say pushpin listings must be locations open to customers.

The majority of businesses that are not at their listed locations, and the most prone to these scams, include contractors, repairers, and car towing services. They are referred to internally as “verticals of stress” at Google because they are companies that people turn to in times of emergency and usually without much time to verify the credibility of the company. The study was also diluted by the inclusion of restaurants and hotels, which are almost always in their listed locations.

While Google typically checks whether a business is legitimate by sending a postcard, calling, or emailing a digital code to enter a Google website, the system is fairly easy to bypass for scammers with fake addresses and phone numbers. The breach hurts real businesses and customers, while crooks and Google reap the benefits. The company has since removed the bogus ads discovered by the Newspaper, and a Google spokesperson told the newspaper the company has added new defenses for high-risk business categories.

In somewhat ironic timing, Google today announced that it is giving business owners more options to customize their business profiles on Search and Maps through its My Business feature. Businesses can offer discounts to new visitors, claim shorter URLs, and set cover photos to attract more customers. Google is trying to make Maps a more robust competitor to Yelp, but if it wants to support real businesses, it looks like it should fix its bogus listing problem first. In a blog post, Google said it was working on new ways to report suspicious business profiles and asked people to report any fraudulent activity on its business turnaround complaint form.

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