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Monday, February 8, 2016

Manupulating Google Maps for Fraud

The New York Times has a long article on fraudulent locksmiths. The scam is a basic one: quote a low price on the phone, but charge much more once you show up and do the work. But the method by which the scammers get victims is new. They exploit Google's crowdsourced system for identifying businesses on their maps. The scammers convince Google that they have a local address, which Google displays to its users who are searching for local businesses.
But they involve chicanery with two platforms: Google My Business, essentially the company's version of the Yellow Pages, and Map Maker, which is Google's crowdsourced online map of the world. The latter allows people around the planet to log in to the system and input data about streets, companies and points of interest.
Both Google My Business and Map Maker are a bit like Wikipedia, insofar as they are largely built and maintained by millions of contributors. Keeping the system open, with verification, gives countless businesses an invaluable online presence. Google officials say that the system is so good that many local companies do not bother building their own websites. Anyone who has ever navigated using Google Maps knows the service is a technological wonder.
But the very quality that makes Google's systems accessible to companies that want to be listed makes them vulnerable to pernicious meddling.
"This is what you get when you rely on crowdsourcing for all your 'up to date' and 'relevant' local business content," Mr. Seely said. "You get people who contribute meaningful content, and you get people who abuse the system."
The scam is growing:
Lead gens have their deepest roots in locksmithing, but the model has migrated to an array of services, including garage door repair, carpet cleaning, moving and home security. Basically, they surface in any business where consumers need someone in the vicinity to swing by and clean, fix, relocate or install something.
What's interesting to me are the economic incentives involved:
Only Google, it seems, can fix Google. The company is trying, its representatives say, by, among other things, removing fake information quickly and providing a "Report a Problem" tool on the maps. After looking over the fake Locksmith Force building, a bunch of other lead-gen advertisers in Phoenix and that Mountain View operation with more than 800 websites, Google took action.
Not only has the fake Locksmith Force building vanished from Google Maps, but the company no longer turns up in a "locksmith Phoenix" search. At least not in the first 20 pages. Nearly all the other spammy locksmiths pointed out to Google have disappeared from results, too.
"We're in a constant arms race with local business spammers who, unfortunately, use all sorts of tricks to try to game our system and who've been a thorn in the Internet's side for over a decade," a Google spokesman wrote in an email. "As spammers change their techniques, we're continually working on new, better ways to keep them off Google Search and Maps. There's work to do, and we want to keep doing better."
There was no mention of a stronger verification system or a beefed-up spam team at Google. Without such systemic solutions, Google's critics say, the change to local results will not rise even to the level of superficial.
And that's Google's best option, really. It's not the one losing money from these scammers, so it's not motivated to fix the problem. Unless the problem rises to the level of affecting user trust in the entire system, it's just going to do superficial things.
This is exactly the sort of market failure that government regulation needs to fix.

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