Skip to main content

Listen

Read

Watch

Schedules

Programs

Events

Give

Account

Donation Heart Ribbon

San Diego Computer Scientists Help Google Crack Down On Fake Listings

Credit: Steve Snodgrass/Flickr

Above: A sign for a locksmith business is seen in this photo, Dec. 19, 2010.

Scammers were getting their businesses listed on Google Maps using fake addresses. A new study co-written by UC San Diego researchers is helping Google identify and fix the problem.

When you are locked out of your car, Google Maps might seem like a great way to find a locksmith near you. But the listing closest to you might be fake. The address could be nothing more than a P.O. box, and what looks like a local phone number could lead you to a remote call center.

Based on some reports, you could end up dealing with a shady subcontractor who will charge much more than the rate you thought you would be paying.

"Scammers were planting fake pins around the map — in this case, locksmiths — to create a false sense of proximity," said UC San Diego computer science PhD student Danny Huang.

For a recently published study, Google teamed up with Huang and other UCSD computer scientists to better understand abuse of Google Maps. The researchers found that listings for locksmiths, plumbers and other on-call contractors were the most common type of scam, representing 40 percent of all fake listings.

Another 13 percent involved listings linked with real addresses for real hotels and restaurants. But the listings were not run by the businesses actually located at those addresses. These fake listings would often prompt users to make reservations through third-party websites — and scammers would take a cut.

Google says it catches 85 percent of abusive listings before they ever make it onto Google Maps. The company also says improvements to its business verification process have reduced the number of fake listings by 70 percent since 2015.

Huang has noticed the difference. As part of his research, he contacted a number of fraudulent locksmith companies listing addresses in La Jolla. He said recently those familiar bad actors have been vanishing from results on Google Maps.

"I did a search on 'locksmith' in San Diego last week," he said. "All the previously fictitious ones have been cleaned up."

Things are apparently getting better. But Huang said after working on this project, he will be careful the next time he needs to contact a locksmith.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.