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Summary: Google files lawsuit to curb fake business listings and reviews

From getting verified to collecting customer details and then selling them to actual businesses, here’s how fake listings have been duping both Google and customers.

Google on June 16 filed a lawsuit against a bad actor who created hundreds of fraudulent business profiles, generated thousands of fake reviews for these profiles, and finally sold these profiles or information about consumers obtained through these profiles to real businesses.

Why it matters: Fake business listings and reviews mislead consumers and cause them monetary losses and other harm. According to the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), consumers waste $125 on average each year to inaccurate reviews, Google cited.

“Customers trust Google to provide authoritative and reliable results. But that trust is lost if they spend money based on fake reviews.” — Google

The company’s lawsuit indicates that it will go after scammers who create fake businesses and reviews not just in the US, but globally.

“This lawsuit is to build awareness that we will not sit idly by as bad actors misuse our products […] We are sharing our insights with them (FTC) to tackle fake reviews and other deceptive endorsements globally.” — Google

Google’s lawsuit is targeted at a California-based individual named Ethan Qiqi Hu, his companies GMBEye and Rafadigital, and 20 other unnamed individuals whose identities are unknown to the company. The company alleged that the defendants violated various Google Terms of Service.

Article continues below. You might also want to read: Summary: India’s new guidelines for online reviews on e-commerce platforms

What was the modus operandi?

1. Creating fake business profiles on Google: Since mid-2021, the defendants have created over 350 fake business profiles accompanied by fake websites. The contact numbers for these businesses are Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone numbers whose area codes correspond to the fake businesses’ supposed locations.

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To pass through the verification process of Google, the defendants opt for the video call option and come to these calls “armed with an elaborate set of props, which they use to pass off their fake listings as real small businesses.” For example, when attempting to verify a fake business called Western Los Angeles Garage Door Repair, the defendant showed a tool bench area to mislead Google into believing they were at their business location. The exact same tool bench area was also used to verify other fake businesses. In another example, defendants presented to Google “what appears to be the same set of essential oils below in order to verify multiple aromatherapy and reiki therapy listings.”

After these fake businesses are verified, the defendants sell the listing or modify the fake business’s information to make the Business Profile more desirable to potential buyers. For example, one defendant made a fake profile for “Santa Barbara Maid Service & House Cleaners”, and later changed the name to “Gold Garage Door Repair.”

The fake listings are sold to other businesses through GMBEye (more on this below) or other channels including Facebook groups.

2. Getting fake reviews for fake businesses: 

To bolster the value of the fake business listing, the defendants get fake reviews posted on the fake business listings. The 350 fraudulent Business Profiles have at least 14,000 fake reviews. “Nearly all of the reviews awarded five out of a potential five stars. And a majority of these reviews—including the at least 14,000 reviews noted above—were posted by two actors located in Bangladesh and Vietnam, an ocean away from the many purported U.S. businesses for which these accounts posted reviews,” Google revealed.

In addition to engaging these unknown persons for fake reviews on the listings created by the defendants, the defendants also sold the fake review posting services to their clients for a fee.

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“The persons who post these reviews have never patronized the businesses in question and their reviews are not based on any real experiences,” Google stated.

3. Selling the leads obtained from fake profiles to actual business: 

The fake business listings are ultimately sold or transferred to others, but before that, while they remain live, they lure unsuspecting users who are searching for similar businesses. These users contact the fake business through the listed VoIP phone numbers or submit online inquiries with their contact information. The defendants sell this information as leads to real-world businesses that provide services similar to fake businesses.

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“The consumers believe that they are contacting a particular business that they have chosen based on its Business Profile, reviews, website, proximity to their location, or other features. But they end up being sent to a different business altogether—one they did not choose and by whom they did not consent to be contacted. This behavior misleads consumers and is likely to erode their trust in Business Profiles on Google as a reliable and safe way to find and contact local businesses,” Google explained.

As an example: “Imagine a resident of Los Angeles who arrives home to find that her garage door will not open. She searches for a nearby garage repair service on Google. She finds the fake listing discussed above, ‘Western Los Angeles Garage Door Repair.’ Due to the Defendants’ scheme, the listing is verified, so it contains photographs, a link to a website, and information about the business’s hours and service area. Seeing the strong five-star reviews by others for Western Los Angeles Garage Door Repair—and growing increasingly frustrated with sitting in her driveway—the user calls the phone number on the Business Profile, whose ‘213’ Los Angeles area code provides further assurance that the business is located nearby. But when she places the call, she is not connected to the business she reasonably believes she thought she was calling (which, of course, does not exist) but to a different repair service that has agreed to pay Defendants a kickback for redirecting consumers their way.”

This scheme is not a secret because the defendants offer them as “lead generation” services through the website Rafadigital and even on Facebook groups, Google pointed out.

How are Business Profiles created and verified on Google Maps and Search?

Google shows Business Profiles for various types of businesses on Google Search and Maps. These profiles contain information about the business’s location, services provided, contact, ratings, reviews, etc. New Business Profiles can be created by businesses themselves, automatically created by Google, or suggested by members of the public.

“To create a new Business Profile or claim an existing Business Profile, a person must verify basic details about the business and that they are the business’s owner or other authorized representative. Following this verification process, the person becomes the profile’s “owner” and may edit that Business Profile, grant other users access to do so, and use various other tools and features,” Google explained. Google verifies owners through various means such as by sending a postcard with a verification code to the address of the business, through a phone or video call, or other means.

What are the false services and claims peddled by the defendants through their websites?

As mentioned above, fake listings are sold to other businesses through GMBEye.

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  • Verification without postcard: GMBEye’s website advertises “Premium Business Listing Verification” services, claiming that verification can be done without going through the postcard method (which is otherwise Google’s default verification standard) for all categories of businesses and services. It offers Basic, Pro, and Ultimate packages “depending on the number of Business Profiles a buyer seeks to verify and, presumably, the degree of effort involved for GMBEye to evade Google’s verification requirements.”
  • Assurance that business will be on top in search results: The website is “replete with express and implied assurances that Defendants are able to bypass the verification procedures that Google requires of most merchants, and also to ensure a particular business listing is ‘at the top’ of Google Search results—a misleading and false statement, for no business or entity can guarantee such placement by Google’s Search algorithm.”
  • A false impression of preferential access to Google: The website gives a false impression that  “GMBEye has preferential access to Google or is otherwise uniquely positioned with respect to Google, allowing it to secure the ‘Premium Business Listing Verification’ that is unavailable to those who verify their businesses through Google’s free processes. The implied message is that, due to this access or relationship, GMBEye can ‘Fast Track Your Business Verification on Google,’ according to the call-to-action at the top of its homepage.” The website further has narrative text explaining how GMBEye relies on a propriety process through which it can “immediately establish trust with Google” while other companies offering similar services are trying to “game the system.” But in reality, “defendants do not, in fact, have any preferential relationship with or access to Google to facilitate such services,” Google clarified.
  • Services for spammy names: GMBEye advertises that it can verify businesses with “spammy names,” bypassing Google’s quality checks and other measures. It also claims that other services cannot do the same because Google will suspend the listing.
  • Any location in any category: GMBEye advertises that it is “the only provider tha[t] can provide GMB listing for any US/CA location in any category.”
  • Search engine optimization: Rafadigital, the other website run by the defendants, offers services related to search engine optimization and lead generation. It advertises elevating the business to the top of search results. “Rafadigital’s advertising makes dramatic and unachievable promises, such as that Defendants will ensure that a website ‘shows up #1 on Google’ and that ‘[w]e rank your business on Google My Business (GMB) to be #1 on map searches so you can out-perform local competitors,’” Google elaborated.
  • Lead generation: Rafadigital’s website also advertises lead generation services, claiming that it can “[g]et high converting leads direct to your phone … for all industries.” These leads are presumably generated from fake business listings, which customers contact unsuspectingly (as outlined above).

How is India trying to address fake reviews?

In December 2022, the Indian government, along with the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), launched new guidelines for online consumer reviews. These guidelines, although voluntary for now, require online platforms that feature consumer reviews to adopt various measures for review collection, moderation, and publication.

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