Don’t Get Hacked on Google Maps

I read with interest a recent Wired.com story about the rapid decline of a northern Virginia restaurant called the Serbian Crown. Serving lion meat, chilled vodka drinks and other specialities, the Serbian Crown was decorated in a luxurious Old World style. But business dropped off dramatically in 2012, and after layoffs and declining service, the Serbian Crown closed its doors permanently in April 2013.

Wired picked up on the story because the restaurant’s owner, Rene Bertagna, is suing Google in federal court in Virginia. Bertagna says that the Serbian Crown’s Google Places listing was manipulated by a competitor to read “closed” on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. For a restaurant that was expensive and prone to regulars (not walk-in traffic), the Google Places’ false information was detrimental to business. At least, that’s what the restaurant owner is arguing. (Read the Wired.com post here for the full story, including Google’s response to the lawsuit.)

Did a Google Maps hacker really close a thriving restaurant? It’s possible, of course. And in the Serbian Crown’s situation, there is also a long record of poor Yelp reviews that describe long waits, inattentive service and substandard bread, soup and entrees. So, this may be a case of a restaurant that was on its way out with a little help from a malicious Google Places edit.

Regardless of this particular situation, the giant, sprawling Google Places (now renamed Google My Business) is rife with shadowy behavior such as fake listings for service businesses, to use one example. Since anyone can set up a business profile, we see dozens of listings for what is often a one-man or woman business.

How does this happen? Let’s take locksmiths, for example. You become locked out of your car. You Google “Burbank locksmith” because you are in Burbank. A listing comes up for a locksmith in Burbank. With one click, you are on your way to reaching your Burbank locksmith. All is good.

The only thing is, your locksmith isn’t really located in Burbank. And he’s not located in any of the other cities where he shows up on Google Maps. He’s just created ten or so Google My Business listings, each for the cities he services. The locksmith has gamed the Google system, a fairly common occurrence.

Another more sinister use of Google My Business is when a competitor takes over a business profile (also called “claiming). Once they have control of the business listing, they can change the phone number so calls come to their business instead. Or the competitor can “close” the business, change hours or move the location miles away on Google Maps. This type of behavior is getting harder to do because Google has a process of checking its data and removing errors, but it still happens.

Still another loophole in Google Maps is when a local listing for a hotel is hacked, and traffic is diverted to an affiliate site which pockets a commission every time a room is booked.

I once sat with a plumber who was convinced he didn’t need any type of business listing monitoring. So, we searched for his information on the web. As the Connectivity platform crawled hundreds of sites and directories, the plumber was shocked to find his phone number was wrong in about 60 percent of search results. It turned out that the plumber had changed his phone number quite some time ago. So, in more than half of the times potential customers called the plumber’s business phone number, they reached the wrong person.

Google works at closing all of these loopholes, but as soon as they do, the bad actors exploit another opening. It’s an arms race of sorts. Not surprisingly, stories like these and the now-closed Serbian Crown are the reason we recommend all local businesses and enterprise businesses make sure they monitor their listings as well as their customer reviews and opinions. After all, if your business is hijacked by your fiercest competitor, you never want to be the last one to know.

Emad is Connectivity’s Co-Founder and COO.


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