WASHINGTON (ABC7) — 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?
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: