Fake map points on search engines lead you straight to scammers

When you need service, like a plumber or locksmith, chances are you go online and look at the search engine map, with those little red pinpoints, to see which is nearest to you, and make a call.

But what if those map-points were fake, leading you right into the hands of scammers?

We discovered a minefield of fake businesses, legitimized by search engines.

Mark Baldino owns “Baldino’s Lock and Key,” a family business that’s been around nearly 60 years. His competition isn’t other locksmiths, it’s scammers with fake listings on search engines.

“Everybody loves the maps and the map points. But they need to be accurate,” Baldino said. “It’s a map. It cannot have a fake river, or a fake road on a map, nor a business.”

But those fake businesses are everywhere. And Baldino says they’ve damaged the business he and his family spent more than half a century building.

“Our business has been tremendously hurt,” Baldino said. “When this first started we used to run 19,000 jobs and year and we’re down to 13,000. That’s a loss of 6,000 calls a year.”

When asked if the cause could simply be a function of the economy, Baldino said that historically in the locksmithing industry when the economy takes a downturn, his industry sees an uptick in business.

“It’s just this huge, shady shell game of duping consumers. And it works. Really, really well,” said Bryan Seely. Seely is a Marine Corp veteran, and “good guy” hacker who’s trying to put an end to phantom companies that dupe consumers and put legitimate business out of business.

He estimates that online, there are between one and two million fake businesses represented with map points, preying on unwitting consumers.

To test it out, we selected appliance repairs, locksmiths, auto glass and pest control companies from maps on all three search engines and went to check them out in person.

Over and over and over again, almost every stop we made was not as advertised.

An appliance company was actually a Verizon shop.

One auto glass repair was an empty lot, another claimed the address of a DC Marshall’s department store.

Then we headed for a pest control company.

Google, Yahoo and Bing maps all confirmed the business actually existed at 1230 North Hartford Street.

So we drove to 1230 North Hartford Street in Arlington, Virginia. And it’s not a pest control company, it’s a public park.

We examined dozens of additional listings and discovered dozens of phantom companies.

“There’s 10 or 20 locksmiths in the top ten that are all fake. All of those numbers end up forwarding to one guy’s cell phone,” said Seely as he surfed for Locksmiths in Redmond, Washington.

Because search engine companies rarely vet the businesses they put on their maps, Seely says it’s simple to set up a scam.

Here’s how they do it:

Scammers create a fake business name and address, but attach a real phone number. They walk through a few easy steps on search engines to get the “business” listed, and voila! A few days later, that fake business is getting very real calls from unwitting consumers.

“You’re playing Russian Roulette because every guy you call could be a scammer, he could be a criminal. He could be an ex-con who’s running this business out of his car,” Seely said.

They are typically unlicensed, uninsured and often unqualified to do the work.

“At one point there were 5,000 phony locations in DC and Baltimore,” Baldino said, “compared to maybe 60 legitimate locksmith companies.”

Whether the fake listing is run by a scammer or lead generator, Baldino says the diverted calls have cost his company a million dollars a year in lost revenue, which is why he’s got a class action lawsuit against Google, Yahoo and Bing.

The suit alleges the search engines are willing to seed their maps with scam businesses to create a false sense of competition.

In a written statement, Google told us they do not intentionally allow fake business listings on maps.

“How they make 90 percent of their revenue is from AdWords,” Baldino said. “So if there is a great amount of competition in order for you to see my business, I have to pay them to be at the top of the page, otherwise I’m buried.”

Because the search engines themselves are the only ones who can drop the pinpoint, Baldino says it’s their responsibility to make sure what the public thinks is real, is actually real.

We reached out to Google, Yahoo and Bing. All three declined on-camera interviews.

But did provide written responses that you can see here:

Statements/Answered Questions from Search Engines Regarding Fake Map Points Below response per Google Spokesperson:
 
Who can place a map point on the maps that populate when a Google search is executed for a business?
 
o
 
Both users and business owners can add business information to Google Maps. Users can use the “add a missing place” link and merchants can sign up for Google My Business for free.
 
But can Google users place a map pin on the map?
o
 
Users can’t actually place a pin on the map. The actual pins that appear on the map are based on your search queries and local ranking factors.
 
What responsibility does Google have to ensure its users that the map points correspond to physical locations of legitimate businesses that actually exist?
 
o
 
We’re heavily invested in empowering users and businesses to contribute their
local knowledge to Google products and services. Overall, this provides comprehensive and up-to-date info, but we recognize there may be occasional inaccuracies or bad edits. When this happens, we do our best to address the issue as quickly as possible.
 
If a consumer is scammed by a “business” that has a map point, but that map point is not
legitimate it is not licensed, bonded and/or insured depending on the requirements of its jurisdiction), do consumers have any recourse with Google?
 
o
 
Users can report instances of scam or fraud to us. We take allegations of fraud very seriously. When an issue is reported to us, we investigate the claims. Upon completion of the investigation, we take actions in line with our findings. The Google Safety Center outlines tips to help consumers stay safe online.
 
Business owners allege that Google intentionally allows fake map points to populate
searches, thereby ‘seeding’ sites with false listings. Legitimate business ow
ners claim this is done to push their business out of view, unless they purchase Ad Words or in some cases
pay to be “verified”.) They allege oogle is intentionally creating a false sense of
competition. Please respond.
 
o
 
Google does not intentionally allow fake business listings on Maps. Nor does Google require payment for businesses to be verified

When you need service, like a plumber or locksmith, chances are you go online and look at the search engine map, with those little red pinpoints, to see which is nearest to you, and make a call.

But what if those map-points were fake, leading you right into the hands of scammers?

We discovered a minefield of fake businesses, legitimized by search engines.

Mark Baldino owns “Baldino’s Lock and Key,” a family business that’s been around nearly 60 years. His competition isn’t other locksmiths, it’s scammers with fake listings on search engines.

“Everybody loves the maps and the map points. But they need to be accurate,” Baldino said. “It’s a map. It cannot have a fake river, or a fake road on a map, nor a business.”

But those fake businesses are everywhere. And Baldino says they’ve damaged the business he and his family spent more than half a century building.

“Our business has been tremendously hurt,” Baldino said. “When this first started we used to run 19,000 jobs and year and we’re down to 13,000. That’s a loss of 6,000 calls a year.”

When asked if the cause could simply be a function of the economy, Baldino said that historically in the locksmithing industry when the economy takes a downturn, his industry sees an uptick in business.

“It’s just this huge, shady shell game of duping consumers. And it works. Really, really well,” said Bryan Seely. Seely is a Marine Corp veteran, and “good guy” hacker who’s trying to put an end to phantom companies that dupe consumers and put legitimate business out of business.

He estimates that online, there are between one and two million fake businesses represented with map points, preying on unwitting consumers.

To test it out, we selected appliance repairs, locksmiths, auto glass and pest control companies from maps on all three search engines and went to check them out in person.

Over and over and over again, almost every stop we made was not as advertised.

An appliance company was actually a Verizon shop.

One auto glass repair was an empty lot, another claimed the address of a DC Marshall’s department store.

Then we headed for a pest control company.

Google, Yahoo and Bing maps all confirmed the business actually existed at 1230 North Hartford Street.

So we drove to 1230 North Hartford Street in Arlington, Virginia. And it’s not a pest control company, it’s a public park.

We examined dozens of additional listings and discovered dozens of phantom companies.

“There’s 10 or 20 locksmiths in the top ten that are all fake. All of those numbers end up forwarding to one guy’s cell phone,” said Seely as he surfed for Locksmiths in Redmond, Washington.

Because search engine companies rarely vet the businesses they put on their maps, Seely says it’s simple to set up a scam.

Here’s how they do it:

Scammers create a fake business name and address, but attach a real phone number. They walk through a few easy steps on search engines to get the “business” listed, and voila! A few days later, that fake business is getting very real calls from unwitting consumers.

“You’re playing Russian Roulette because every guy you call could be a scammer, he could be a criminal. He could be an ex-con who’s running this business out of his car,” Seely said.

They are typically unlicensed, uninsured and often unqualified to do the work.

“At one point there were 5,000 phony locations in DC and Baltimore,” Baldino said, “compared to maybe 60 legitimate locksmith companies.”

Whether the fake listing is run by a scammer or lead generator, Baldino says the diverted calls have cost his company a million dollars a year in lost revenue, which is why he’s got a class action lawsuit against Google, Yahoo and Bing.

The suit alleges the search engines are willing to seed their maps with scam businesses to create a false sense of competition.

In a written statement, Google told us they do not intentionally allow fake business listings on maps.

“How they make 90 percent of their revenue is from AdWords,” Baldino said. “So if there is a great amount of competition in order for you to see my business, I have to pay them to be at the top of the page, otherwise I’m buried.”

Because the search engines themselves are the only ones who can drop the pinpoint, Baldino says it’s their responsibility to make sure what the public thinks is real, is actually real.

We reached out to Google, Yahoo and Bing. All three declined on-camera interviews.

But did provide written responses that you can see here:

Google, Yahoo and Bing account for about 96 percent of all searches online.

Mark Baldino is pursuing the class action lawsuit in DC Federal Court.

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