Depending on where you live, if you open up Google Maps and search for "restaurant" you could have any number of red pins pop up on screen. But how many of these are actual business locations? What's more, how many of them are even businesses at all? It may be fewer than you think. New research has revealed how scammers are gaming this location-based system for profit, with Google now taking steps to preserve the integrity of its venerable online mapping service.

The findings are the result of a collaboration between Google and computer scientists at the University of California, San Diego. The team analyzed more than 100,000 fraudulent Google Maps listings to try and uncover how scammers are profiting off illegitimate activity. Fraudulent listings, you say? Well, it appears that scammers are looking to take advantage of the ever-increasing reliance in location-based searches by using fake locations to make it seem that certain businesses are closer than they actually are. This in turn makes them more likely to show up in the search results.

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How do they pull this off, exactly? Google verifies business locations for Google Maps by mailing out a postcard with a code on it. The business then enters this verification code as part of its registration and once it's all ticked off, the listing goes live. The researchers say this, along with other measures, actually prevents 85 percent of fake listings and those that do make through are taken down within an average of 8.6 days anyway.

But one of the main, and relatively simple, ways scammers are able to beat this system is by having the verification postcards mailed to PO boxes that they have leased in the desired area. This includes tacking fake suite numbers onto the address to mimic big office buildings like those in Manhattan, for example, to avoid suspicion that might arise from different businesses having the same address. Another trick they use is changing the address of the business once it has been verified.

The researchers found that scammers were using schemes of this nature to get around the system, and that on-call contractors such as plumbers and locksmiths seemed to be benefitting more than most. In fact, their study found that 40 percent of all fake listings fall into that category.

Eleven percent of all search results for "locksmith" were found to be fraudulent. In New York, this figure went up to 15.6 percent, and in West Harrison, a small town outside Manhattan, this figure shot up to 83.3 percent. This tactic produces a profit when the contractors get called out to a job that might have otherwise fallen to a business located closer by.

And one way scammers in the hospitality game are tricking Google Maps is by setting up fake pins for real restaurants and hotels which are not in on the scheme. These hucksters then set up independent websites that are connected to the business' legitimate website, landing them commissions either by allowing users to make reservations or by referring them to the business' actual web address. Thirteen percent of the fraudulent listings studied had real hotel or restaurant addresses, but were not created by the businesses themselves.

Google has now taken a number of steps to clamp down on these scammers. It now prohibits bulk registration at most addresses and doesn't allow businesses to change addresses to faraway locations without further verification. It also now detects and ignores jumbled text that is intended to confuse its algorithms, and has refined its anti-spam machine learning systems. These have combined, it says, to reduce the fraudulent listings in Google Maps by 70 percent.

The research paper can be found online.

Source: University of California San Diego