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Google sues alleged scammer over fake business and review scheme

Google sues alleged scammer over fake business and review scheme

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The suit comes as the company fends off competition from AI-assisted competitors.

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Illustration: The Verge

Google is suing an alleged scammer for running an elaborate scheme to flood its search product with fake businesses and reviews. 

In the complaint filed Friday, Google accuses the defendant, Ethan Hu, of abusing the company’s products “to create fake online listings for businesses that do not exist, and to bolster them with fake reviews from people who do not exist.” After establishing the fake companies, Hu and 20 unnamed co-defendants allegedly sold these fake listings to other businesses looking to promote their own services in Google’s search results. 

Over the last two years, Google says the defendants created over 350 fake business profiles that received at least 14,000 fake reviews. While Google can automatically create listings for businesses, business owners can also make them themselves by either requesting a verification postcard be sent to their address or by proving their legitimacy on either a voice or video call with a Google employee.

In its complaint, Google accuses the defendants of posing as fake business owners on these calls “armed with an elaborate set of props which they use to pass off their fake listings as real small businesses.”

This image allegedly depicts one of the defendants in Google’s lawsuit on a video call with a company employee.

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Google included this image in its complaint claiming to show one of the defendants on a video call with a company employee.

In one instance, Google included a picture it believes to be Hu on one of these calls, where Hu allegedly claimed to be associated with a fictitious chiropractor, Wilmington Chiro Health, in June 2021. In March of 2022, he allegedly showed a Google employee a tool bench to demonstrate the existence of “Western Los Angeles Garage Door Repair,’’ then used the same bench to verify two other businesses in different parts of the country later that month. In yet another instance, Google says Hu assembled essential oils and a massage chair to verify an aromatherapy and reiki business.

Google claims that Hu would advertise these listings for rent and sale on Facebook pages. In one example, Hu allegedly asked potential buyers for $1,000 for access to a fake plumbing listing in Monterey, California, that received “‘~40 calls and 5 form submissions’” the month before, likely from people in the area searching for a plumber. Callers would be routed through that fake listing to a real plumbing business with a less sophisticated online footprint.

Google is asking to be awarded damages and for Hu and his co-defendants to be permanently banned from advertising or selling false verification services.

The lawsuit comes as Google attempts to fend off competition from a new set of competitors like the AI-assisted Bing and ChatGPT services, as well as a potential flood of low-quality AI-generated search results. “Customers trust Google to provide authoritative and reliable results,” Renny Hwang, Google’s head of litigation, said in a Friday blog post. “But that trust is lost if they spend money based on fake reviews.”