Karl Marx famously said, "History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce." This is certainly the case with Local Services Ads (LSAs), Google's "verified and vetted" ad product for local service professionals. It seems as if all of the same scams that were popular with Google Maps are now in play with LSAs: fake names, fake reviews, unlicensed operators and bait and switch consumer deception. Now however these listings receive the "Google Guarantee" stamp of approval.
Two weeks ago I shared how LSA listings were leveraging security holes in the Google vetting processes to display thousands or even tens of thousands of reviews stolen from Google Maps local landmarks and to use keyword-laden fake names to capture leads in the the HVAC niche of duct cleaning.
Last week we looked at how these bogus LSA listings had achieved front page visibility on Google search throughout the state of Texas and that the fingerprints from these listings pointed to a few marketing firms that have been previously seen in the garage door and locksmith spaces.
[Update 12/12/23] It appears that these scammers are also stealing the FL business licensing numbers required for Google LSA verification process from other small, HVAC businesses in Florida. In Florida, the deceptive misuse of a license can apparently lead to strict enforcement and a fine from the Florida DBPR if there are consumer complaints. This puts the unaware businesses whose licenses were used at significant risk.
This past week, we used a "secret shopper" to engage with one of these "local duct cleaning" companies that "borrowed" 9,336 reviews from a popular landmark. The LSA call went to an answering service in India. A technician was later dispatched onsite to provide a quote for duct cleaning. The technician, an Israeli national, was from a different company entirely, was unlicensed (a FL requirement) and proceeded to provide a quote that was four times what the actual job should have cost. What would have been a $300 job quickly became $1,300, including unnecessary work to remedy mold problems that didn't exist.
Why Duct Cleaning?
The ins-and-outs of duct cleaning – mold issues, licensing requirements, the specific tasks and costs – are largely opaque to normal home owners. Whether there really is mold, for example, is hard to ascertain and whether the job is performed as required by law is equally hard to determine. This makes the add-ons of unnecessary services easy to sell and very hard to detect after the fact. The scam is both profitable and unlikely to generate official scrutiny – at least not yet.
The Locksmith Scam
As a refresher, locksmith spam with fake locations, fake names and fake reviews was rampant in Google Local very early on. Missouri, Florida and the feds ended up prosecuting a major player in 2009 but the scam has persisted for a number of years and made its way into other geographies and into other verticals in Maps. The Missouri and Florida cases, and many similar cases, involved Israeli nationals.
The Tragedy and Recurring Farce of LSA
Google has seen virtually every variation of these abuses in Google Maps. And to some extent, after 15 or so years, they have started to limit their reach by making verification more difficult and attempting to increase moderation of reviews. However none of these obvious improvements have been incorporated by the very similar LSA listings.
When Local Services Ads was first conceived it was designed to avoid spam problems by virtue of a rigorous screening and matching process. Over time, every aspect of the more rigid LSA program, from who can create a listing and naming rules, have fallen by the wayside. Review abuses are rampant and review moderation is a mockery. Not only are there a million and one fake positive reviews, there is a growing number of fake negative reviews and the reporting process is extremely limited if not brain dead.
Despite the trust issues inherent in weak verification and terrible review moderation, the public is told by Google that LSA listings are particularly trustworthy businesses that have been verified, double checked and guaranteed by Google. They are presented front and center in search results and searchers are particularly attracted to them. The review-loving public assumes erroneously that these reviews are to be trusted as well.
The Saga Continues
These scams, effectively supported by Google's Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval continue unabated. This tweet showed in my timeline yesterday.
Google has essentially stamped its authoritative seal of approval on a two-bit scam – one, that by now, they are very familiar with. Their knowledge and lack of oversight make them complicit in actively deceiving the public. Whether the harms to society and other businesses from these actions are just a function of profit seeking or the banality of complacency is hard to determine. But the harms are real and the scale significant.