Google Maps sabotage is a 'scary' problem for all users, warns 'internet police'
This Tuesday, July 19, 2016, file photo shows the Google logo at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Jeff Lagerquist, CTVNews.ca Staff
Published Friday, April 13, 2018 5:52PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, April 13, 2018 7:34PM EDT
TORONTO -- Google’s ubiquitous suite of apps and services has become an essential part of running a business. Billions of users rely on the search engine to connect with businesses online and Google Maps to direct them to brick-and-mortar locations.
Like any pool of people that size, there are bound to be some who are bent on sabotaging others for their own gain.
Imagine, for example, a local restaurant changing the phone listing or business hours of its competition to stop people from visiting. Or someone changing the name of a hair salon to make people think it’s an auto body shop.
Sydney Eatz, a member of the so-called “internet police” and avid Google Local Guides Toronto contributor, is on a mission to right these wrongs.
She and her co-moderator Richard Trus claim to have added more than 10,000 Toronto-area restaurants and other businesses to the Google Maps platform. The pair ranks among the top-10 most trusted Google Maps contributors in the world.
“I was adding places to Google Maps about six, seven times a day because I have a hypothyroid. So I have to continuously eat,” she told CTV’s Your Morning on Thursday.
Eatz started out by rating and reviewing Toronto restaurants on Google Maps. The platform also collects data about places people go, and asks users to participate in voluntary questioners to learn about things like parking, wheelchair accessibility, ambiance, and hours.
Business owners complained to Eatz and Trus about incorrect information.
“We were approached by these owners who were like, ‘I have problems with this listing and that listing. Somebody is changing this and that.’ We looked at it. We fixed it. They were like, ‘Okay, you are the internet police now,’” she said.
Fraudsters targeting Google Maps are hatching all manner of schemes to mislead the billions of users who rely on the platform to get around and find the goods and services they want, according Eatz. She said she has seen cases where sales have tanked by 20 per cent as a result.
One of the ways Google verifies business locations for Google Maps is by mailing out a postcard with a code on it. The business owner then enters this verification code as part of the registration to publish the listing.
Last year, the California-based tech company and the University of California, San Diego analyzed more than 100,000 fraudulent Google Maps listings to attempt to uncover how fraudsters are profiting from the site.
Canada was found to be number six globally when it comes to “abusive listings” identified by the researchers, at 1.5 per cent. The United States was number one, with 56.5 per cent.
The researchers found that one of the ways fraudsters were sidestepping Google’s postcard-based verification system was by creating “verification hubs,” often by using post office boxes as a physical address.
“We find that miscreants used UPS stores as mailing addresses for 43.5 per cent of all abusive listings that used hubs,” the authors wrote. “For the remaining 56.5 per cent of abusive listings verified through hubs, we discern no obvious patterns.”
Another trick impacting the hospitality industry involves creating a fake pin location and website where customers make fake reservations for a hotel or restaurant. Sometimes the business does not even exist.
Toronto’s Seneca College has more than 5,300 international students from over 130 countries, according to its website. A Google Maps search for hotels near its main campus appears to reveal plenty of places for visiting families to stay.
“These fake hotels go for $500 per night. These foreign students are placing their booking to bring their family over. Their family comes by, and there is no hotel,” Eatz said. “They are crashing on someone’s couch in someone’s house.”
On its support website, Google lists a number of known scams involving its services and outlines various ways in which users can submit feedback about incorrect information.
“Spammers and others with negative intent are a problem for consumers, businesses and technology companies that provide local business information,” a spokesperson for Google told CTV News in a statement. “We use manual and automated systems to detect for spam and fraud, but we tend not to share details behind our processes so as not to tip off spammers or others with bad intent.”
According to Eatz, it’s not just businesses that can be impacted by misleading information on Google Maps. She said individuals are replacing the phone numbers of banks with their own, and potentially obtaining private financial information from clients.
“You’re calling someone’s cell phone,” she said. “It’s a scary thing.”
Eatz said she has been asked to testify in front of a Senate ethics committee in Ottawa. She expects the nonexistent offices for MPs she found on Google Maps may be of particular interest.
“There are about 10. One was directing to an escort agency,” she said. “I can show you how to become Justin Trudeau for a day, and take his calls and direct all his calls to your cell phone.”