Google should be issuing a mass warning right now, but in lieu of that, I'm going to. If your business is listed in Google Maps or you are simply a Maps user, do yourself a huge favor and read this post. Just when you thought tactics couldn't get any slimier on the dark side of Local, they have. Weaknesses in the Google Maps system are letting in a new breed of slithering, low-down criminals who have decided that going into the extortion business is a fine use of the gift of life. Let me make you aware of what's going on.

The Specific Scenario

Several people have shown up in the Google Places Help Forum recently reporting a similar dilemma. Case in point was a limo business owner who posted this story:

My business has a couple address that are both listed and claimed in google maps. However, if you do a search of my domain name, you will see three pages of results, all but two of which are wrong. The wrong listings have a bad phone number, random business name, and random address, but it does list my company domain. These listings have already been "Claimed by owner" so we cannot go in and fix them. This was brought to our attention today by a phone call from a "marketing expert" who pointed out this problem and how it could get us banned from google. When we refused to pay him to correct the problem, he threatened to flag our real listings and get them removed/penalized if we didn't pay him. This person obviously created about 25 fake listings with my domain in another Google Places account before calling to point out this "problem" and is holding the ability to delete them hostage... There is no way for us to correct the listing.

In the days following this initial report, it looks like Local Search Expert Mike Blumenthal helped bring attention to this awful situation both within the forum and on his blog where he posted about it. A Google employee named Cecelia tuned into the story and the 25 fake listings summarily disappeared.

The business owner is as in-the-dark as the rest of us as to what exactly happened here, but bizarrely, he reports that he is still being harassed by the extortionist 'marketer' via telephone. Other Places Forum members are suggesting that the limo business owner post the name of the unsavory company who has done this to him, and while that might be interesting information to have, it will not solve the overall problem because this practice is not being confined to a single case or a single bad guy.

As Mike Blumenthal's above post mentions, a report was recently published at Webmasterworld stating that clients were being contacted by extortionists to remove false negative reviews that had been published about their businesses in Google Maps.

Such claims have been made in the past about major entities like Yelp and Merchant Circle recently had to cough up close to $1 million in a lawsuit hinging on illegal marketing practices. But what we have here is not coming from the misguided business ethics of large corporations - rather, it appears to be the bright idea of petty crooks and thugs who fancy themselves Depression Era gangsters, demanding protection money. And herein lies the almost impossible unwieldiness of the problem.

You can combat a large company's mistake. A legal ruling on a bad practice generally takes care of it. But how do you combat millions of potential criminals, all of whom have been given the power to create false business listings and write false reviews, holding the reputations and earnings of legitimate businesses hostage, as a means of making money? I certainly don't know how, and I'm very doubtful as to Google's ability to control what begins to look like a monster they and their local data peers have created. A hand edit of a single case, as cited above, solves the limo guy's problem, but it does nothing to address the problem at large.

At the very least, I wish to use this article for two purposes.

1. To warn you, personally, that this is going on.

2. To agitate for Google issuing a mass email warning to all claimed businesses that this type of extortion is happening. PayPal issues warnings about potential scams. Google should do it, too.

What Should You Do If An Extortionist Contacts You?

Here is my advice. I would play dumb. I would respond something along the lines of,

"Oh, dear. I'm so concerned about this. I'll have to go look at my listing to see what happened. Could I have your name and number so I can call you back? What company did you say you were from? Thanks so much for letting me know about this."

I would then go to the Google Places Help Forum and report the problem with a title something like:

ABC Marketing Company Asking For Money To Remove False Listings

And I would hope that Google picks up the ball from there.

What do you think? Does this advice seem good to you? What would you do if someone published 25 fake listings for your business, filled your profile with false negative reviews and then phoned you asking for money? I'd like to know.

October 6, 2010

Miriam Ellis is the co-owner of Solas Web Design and CopyLocal, providing SEO-based website design, Local SEO and professional copywriting for small-to-medium North American businesses. She is the Local SEO Associate in the Q&A Forum at SEOmoz, a moderator at Cre8asite Forums and an annual participant in David Mihm's Local Search Ranking Factors report. When she and her husband are not working on the web, they're farming organically and working on increased sustainability or roaming about in nature having the time of their lives.


I've been wondering lately about all of these business directories popping up like crazy! When you get there to read your alleged business stats, there's a link that says "Is this your business?" Anyone could be a poser! Scary!

Thanks for this warning- spam and scams are the scourge of on line businesses. I am a great fan of Google, particularly for the really useful set of free tools that is provided for the small business to improve their Internet marketing and SEO. The only problem that I have found is that it is impossible to communicate with a human being in the case of any problems and the help forum doesn't always provide the answer that one looks for.

WOW! You got that right... slimy. This is pretty scary to the companies who actually help local business owners. These people are hurting the reputations of honest marketing companies.

Hi Joe,
Yes, what you cite is concerning. Most of the major user review sites have a verification process, either by phone or email, and this is supposed to curtail the amount of false listings and spam, but it is far from perfect.

Hi Dennis,
We're in the same boat. I absolutely love much of what Google does. They produce brilliant products, but I see their two failings as these:

1) A willingness to unleash beta products that cause serious adverse effects in the real world.

2) An unwillingness to consider that an algorithmic approach to handling something as sensitive as business data is not sufficient.

Just about everyone I speak to agrees that Google should associate a customer service department with Local, but as far as I'm concerned, it's just not going to happen.

Thanks for stopping by!

Hi Drew,
Yes, the damage here is very real. Agree.

I had a text off some so called SEO expert who told me my businesses was being listed in Google Maps incorrectly but the thing was I already owned the listing and the one he was talking about was spelt my incorrectly just to get some money of me I just told him straight that i already owned the legit listing and to go and bother someone else who cared!

Since legislating morality never works, educating the public is probably the best line of defense and your suggestion sounds like an excellent one. It effectively addresses the problem and obtains the information necessary to shut down the scammers.

Another issue businesses need to be aware of is the importance of claiming their Google listing and any other listings where reviews can be published. I personally know a local mobile mechanic whose excellent reviews on Google were hijacked by another mechanic who edited the listing to include his own phone number and address.

That other company was able to steal a lot of new business before the legitimate owner realized what had happened. Fortunately he was able to get Google to restore his information. Given how challenging it can be to contact a human at most large Corporations that in itself is a minor miracle so prevention would be a much better idea. I immediately claim listings to keep that from happening.

it is truly unfortunate that so many beneficial ideas - like online reviews - are made suspect by common criminals with no ethical compass.

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Search Engine Guide > Miriam Ellis > Warning: Beware New Breed Of Extortion In Google Maps