Google Sues Scammer Over Alleged Scheme To Flood Search With Fake Businesses And Reviews

Topline

Google on Friday accused an alleged scammer of orchestrating a complex scheme to fill its search engine with fake companies and fake reviews, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court, the tech giant’s latest effort to tackle bogus content as it pushes back against increasingly fierce competition from its rivals.

Key Facts

In the lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California and first reported by The Verge, Google accused Ethan Hu of using its products to make “fake online listings for businesses that do not exist” and bolstering them “with fake reviews from people who do not exist.”

Google said Hu, alongside a score of unnamed defendants, then sold the fake listings to real businesses wanting a better position in Google’s search rankings or to “other scammers or bad actors who abuse fake listings.”

As well as deceiving Google’s customers, the tech giant said the scheme also deceived legitimate business owners by making “unsubstantiated and impossible claims” about their ability to guarantee a prominent position in its search results and by suggesting they could secure “preferential treatment or access” when creating and verifying a business listing.

To verify the listings, Google said Hu and other defendants frequently posed as fake business owners on video calls with staff, often “armed with an elaborate set of props” to give the impression of a legitimate business, such as an array of essential oils for verifying aromatherapy and reiki businesses or a tool bench for plumbing and garage repair businesses.

Google said the scheme spawned at least 350 fake business profiles with at least 14,000 fake reviews since mid 2021, with most reviews coming from just two people an ocean away in Bangladesh and Vietnam.

Google is seeking unspecified damages, legal costs and for Hu and the other defendants to be permanently banned from selling or advertising verification services for business profiles on its platform.

Key Background

The lawsuit comes as Google digs in to defend its dominant position online and fights off increasingly fierce competition from fast-growing platforms like TikTok and longstanding competitors like Microsoft who are jostling to take advantage of developments in artificial intelligence to gain ground and steal market share. Fake reviews, listings and other material has been a longstanding issue for firms like Google, Yelp and Amazon that rely heavily on user-generated content. It has never been fully tackled and companies regularly portray themselves as engaged in a perpetual war with scammers. With trustworthiness a key focal point of discussion and scrutiny surrounding AI, ensuring listings are reliable takes on an even more important role. The technology could plausibly be used to fight both sides of this war, writing or detecting fake reviews. AI has been deployed for years by companies trying to up their chances of detecting fake content and many like Amazon are now trying to leverage advances to up their game even more.

What To Watch For

In a blog post about the lawsuit, Google emphasized the real-world costs of fake reviews and the impact it has on its customers. It pointed to a survey cited by the Federal Trade Commission that claims consumers waste around $125 a year on average due to inaccurate reviews and praised the watchdog’s efforts to hold bad actors to account, adding that it is sharing its insights to help it tackle the issue and other bad conduct globally.

Big Number

20 million. That’s how many attempts to create fake business profiles Google said it stopped in 2022. In the same year, it said it protected more than 185,000 businesses from abuse after detecting suspicious activity.

Further Reading

Google sues alleged scammer over fake business and review scheme (The Verge)

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