The next time you go to order pizza, or call someone to repair an appliance, make sure you aren’t getting scammed by a representative of a business that doesn’t actually exist.
According to a recent report from the Wall Street Journal, Google Maps has a problem with fake businesses. Some of the fakes are scams trying to con customers, while some are false copycats trying to undermine competitors. Whatever the motivation, WSJ’s report estimates there could be over 11 million listed on Google Maps right now.
Google responded to the report by removing the fake business listings implicated in WSJ’s investigation. The company also released a statement clarifying its policies and tools for combating such listings, noting that it removed nearly three million fake businesses and 150,000 user profiles connected to these scams in 2018 alone.
The prevalence of false listings is alarming, to say the least, and it’s important to know how to spot a fake on your own.
What fake businesses look like on Google Maps
The tell-tale signs of a fake business on Google Maps are pretty easy to notice once you know what you’re looking for. These include:
- If users reviews claim the business is fake, misleading, or scammy.
- If the business is not actually located at the address provided on Google Maps, the business name is incorrect, or the images on the business profile do not match its location.
- If the business lists a P.O. Box, residential house, shared workplace, or virtual office as its address.
- Similarly, if you know the location of a business but find other listings claiming to be it, that’s a sign that someone may be creating imposter profiles to undermine the business.
- If a business’ profile is full of keywords that look as if it’s trying to game Google results instead of provide useful information to potential customers.
- If a business’ phone number is fake or disingenuous. This includes if the number redirects to a different business; is never answered or has a suspicious voicemail box; is disconnected; or doesn’t even work in the first place. If someone does answer, make sure they’re answering on behalf of the company.
- Using Fake URLs or fake email addresses (especially true if the business’ website doesn’t exist, or emails to the business bounce back).
- The business profile includes little-to-no identifying information, such as contact information, hours of operation, website, user reviews/ratings, etc. These omissions aren’t necessarily damning on their own, but can help build a case if you run into any of the other points listed above.
That all said, some fake businesses will go the extra mile to look real, while some real businesses will have the bare minimum information required to be listed on Google despite being an entirely legit operation. To help protect yourself, make sure you’re negotiating prices for services up-front, and confirm these are correct—in writing, if possible—before you take the business up on whatever its selling.
While this type of scam could theoretically happen to any business, Google says the businesses most prone to scams are what the company calls “duress verticals.” These are businesses that are usually called upon in emergencies or on short notice—stuff like towing companies, repairmen, locksmiths, plumbers, etc.—so be extra cautious when searching for these types of services. When in doubt, cross-reference your findings using another service (like Yelp) to see if a place checks out or not.
How to report a fake business or flag misleading information
If you come across a profile that needs to be fixed or removed, you can flag information that needs updating on both the desktop and mobile versions of Google Maps:
- Open the business’ Google Maps profile
- Scroll down and click or tap “Suggest an edit.”
- Select whether you’re looking to change details or request a removal.
- Fill out the form and click “Submit.” The more information you provide, the quicker Google will be able to make the changes.
In addition to flagging content in-app, Google also has two additional ways to report false information for more serious cases:
Finally, business owners—especially those who work in “vulnerable verticals”—should follow Google’s business representation guidelines and use its helpful business profile tools to help mitigate the potential for fakers to create misleading copycat profiles.