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Google Maps has a fake business listing problem

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Google Maps is overrun with fake business listings and phone numbers that reroute to competing businesses, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Hundreds of thousands of fake listings appear on Google Maps every month, with the Journal estimating the service currently has about 11 million falsely listed businesses.

Though Google claims in a self-funded 2017 academic study that only 0.5 percent of local searches are false listings, a separate investigation by the Journal suggested otherwise. In searching for plumbers in New York City, the Journal found 13 of the top 20 Google search results listed false addresses, and only two were real businesses that actually adhered to Google guidelines, which stipulate that pushpin listings must be locations open to customers.

The majority of businesses that aren’t at their listed locations, and the ones most prone to these scams, include contractors, repairmen, and car towing services. They’re internally referred to as “duress verticals” at Google, as they are companies people turn to in emergencies and typically without much time to verify the business’ credibility. The study was also diluted by the inclusion of restaurants and hotels, which are almost always at their listed locations.

Though Google typically verifies if a business is legitimate by mailing a postcard, calling, or emailing a numerical code to enter into a Google website, the system is easy enough for scammers to bypass with fake addresses and phone numbers. The loophole hurts real businesses and customers alike, while scammers and Google reap the benefits. The company has since taken down the false listings discovered by the Journal, and a Google spokesperson told the paper the company has added new defenses for high-risk business categories.

In somewhat ironic timing, Google announced today that it’s giving business owners more options to customize their company profiles on search and Maps through its My Business feature. Businesses can offer discounts to first-time visitors, claim shorter URLs, and set cover photos to attract more customers. Google is trying to turn Maps into a more robust Yelp competitor, but if it wants to support real businesses, it seems like it should be dealing with its false listing problem first. In a blog post, Google says it’s working on new ways to report suspicious business profiles, and directed people to report fraudulent activity on its Business Redressal Complaint Form.