‘Internet Police’ warn business owners of sabotage on Google MapsApril 2, 2018
When people walked into Aitous Rasouli’s Richmond Hill hair salon asking for falafels, he was confused.
There was a simple, if odd, reason: as it turns out, his hungry visitors had been fooled by Google Maps.
House of Aitous, the name of Rasouli’s salon, was listed on the app as House of Falafel.
“We’re a hair salon, not a restaurant,” said Rasouli, who opened his salon in 2016.
“Someone’s doing this to hack us and take business from the location.”
He realized that his business was replaced by a fake one on the app when he got a visit from Sydney Eatz and Richard Trus, who are part of Toronto’s Local Guides community, a group that works to improve Google Maps by adding information and photos to the platform, and writing reviews.
Eatz and Trus have listed more than 10,000 GTA businesses on Google Maps.
“When they came in and told me about the situation, I thought they were lying; I thought they were scammers themselves,” Rasouli said.
“And then I realized, ‘Wow! This is true.’ ”
The visit of Trus and Eatz to House of Aitous is part of the pair’s new mission: protecting local businesses from sabotage on Google Maps.
“We’ve become the Internet Police,” Eatz said.
The problem is anyone can suggest edits to a location on Google Maps and leave reviews, and change business hours and phone numbers.
Many users act in good faith.
Some do not.
“We’re heavily invested in empowering users to contribute their local knowledge to Google products and services,” said Alexandra Klein, a Google spokesperson. “Allowing users to suggest edits provides comprehensive and up-to-date info, but we recognize there may be occasional inaccuracies or bad edits suggested by users. When this happens, we do our best to address the issue as quickly as possible.”
Klein said Google uses “automated systems” to detect fraud, and suggest that business owners should “claim” their business on Google Maps to oversee and control their information.
When users claim a business on Google, they are alerted to changes to information on the listing.
Trus said the platform makes a huge difference for businesses, and can affect the bottom line. He says he’s seen businesses lose 20 per cent of their business after being sabotaged.
“Four out of five searches on Google Maps leads to a purchase or visit,” Trus said, referring to a study by Neustars, a marketing firm.
Eatz and Trus said that there are several ways to “weaponize” Google Maps to harm businesses.
A user can claim a business he or she does not own on Google Maps, and suggest changes to its information to sabotage it. He or she can input his or her own phone number, change the business hours, and even change the name of the business.
“Suddenly, you can be anyone,” Trus said.
Other people who claim this same business will be alerted to any changes to the information.
Trus said people often pretend to be their competitors to divert customers to themselves.
Users can also spam a business with five-star reviews, which the Google algorithm could catch, then unlist the business, for ostensibly trying to promote itself dishonestly.
Some nefarious users go as far as setting up their own fake businesses on Google Maps. Eatz and Trus found several nonexistent offices for MPs on the platform.
There are no laws against this practice, and user anonymity makes it difficult to find out who the saboteurs are.
Rasouli’s business isn’t the only one that the “Internet Police” has put back on the map. A Subway location at the Eaton Centre and a Master Mechanic have also benefitted.
Josie Candito, the owner of a Master Mechanic in High Park, was notified by Eatz and Trus that someone was uploading pictures of a different auto shop’s storefront onto her Google listing.
“My Internet Police helped me get rid of the picture,” she said. “If you don’t claim your business, other people can claim it for you and put misleading stuff on there.”
She also found reviews for other Master Mechanic franchises under her name on Google, an issue she is still trying to resolve.
Candito is advising other business owners to take control of their virtual presence.
“Other business owners are lost,” she said. “I’ve been able to deal with some of the problems, but I know other business owners and franchisees are frustrated because they don’t know what to do.”