Did you know that Google has formed an alliance with scammers to take our money? While they won’t admit to it, it’s essentially what happens because of the design of the Google search engine. Google has been called out for it many times over the years, but has done little to address the problem.
The scam works like this: When we google to find a phone number for a business, invariably the top result is not that business, but usually a company trying to make us think it’s that business. These companies of course pay Google to be among the top results. And invariably the very top result is rarely the number we are looking for.
That’s because the google search engine now returns paid ads within the listing of results. These paid search results used to be off to the side with a tinted background, but now they are only distinguishable from the correct results with a small “Sponsored Ad” notation. And based on my testing and recent articles, Google makes little to no effort to check the accuracy of these numbers.
Companies that we do business with also contribute to the problem by making it difficult to find their real phone number in order to avoid paying the cost of our speaking with a real person. As a result, we are driven to Google to find the number. It’s easy to do and to fall victim, especially if you have an urgent need. I’ve done it and know many others that fall for the deception.
In a recent article in the Washington Post, we learned of how a Delta passenger was desperately trying to reach Delta when his flight was canceled, used Google to find the number, and reached a person trying to get his credit card number to sell him a flight at five times the cost:
He dialed the first phone number the search engine listed. The automated voice at the number Evers called claimed to be a central customer service desk for multiple airlines, although Delta’s name was never explicitly mentioned. That was the first sign something wasn’t right.
Evers had accidentally called a number added to Google by potential scammers in place of the actual Delta customer service number. Like other consumers in recent years, he didn’t know that search results can be manipulated by scammers. It’s called “malvertising.”
While Google responded by correcting some of the numbers that the writer note, this scam has been going on for years. I just did my own test and here’s what I found using my iPhone:
I googled “Apple Tech Support” and the top two results were other companies. The second company has a headline “Contact Here. -Apple Customer Service.” The correct phone number is in the third result, but note that Apple has to pay for this position even though it iis Apple Tech Support. Others may be tech support for apple products, but the distinction is easy to miss.
Many of us that do a lot of traveling encounter similar misdirection from real businesses that attempt to confuse us. Ever try to find a website for a hotel or rental car? You’ll usually need to wade through a myriad of websites that that try to get grab our attention before getting to the true home site. Sure, we can be more careful and use the airline or rental car app to verify the number, but that only works when the business wants to make that number easy to find.
Google search’s original model was to provide the most accurate search results first, but no longer. I’d describe their current model as “providing the most accurate results maybe on the first page, but rarely at the top. That space is reserved for the highest bidder, even though it may be wrong or even a spam site designed to fool our users.”