Bogus Search Tech-Support Ads Still Scamming Consumers

Have you ever been catfished by a paid advertisement when you were innocently Googling something? Maybe you were trying to get live support for your new Android phone but found yourself deep in scam territory. In July 2014, six global tech support scam artists had to pay over $5 million after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found them guilty of search fraud in 2012. Each scammer had the same MO: act as a rep for a random big technology company, tell consumers their computers were riddled with viruses, then get paid handsomely to “fix” something that wasn’t broken.

One of the best ways these scammers scored was via paid search ads for computer support queries. For example, if someone Googled “Apple support,” the paid ad would pop up and catch the consumer’s eye. According to the FTC, “The scammers hoped to avoid detection by consumers and law enforcers by using virtual offices that were actually just mail-forwarding facilities, and by using 80 different domain names and 130 different phone numbers.”



A glitch in Google?

You’d think major search engines like Google would have a way of spotting scammed paid advertisements, but it doesn’t seem like that’s a priority for them. However, Google was quick to penalize sites like eBay that allegedly engaged in the occasional black-hat tactics to manipulate search engine rankings. What’s more harmful: getting to the top of search engine results, or paying for ads that are automatically at the top and a scam?

For scam artists, tapping into multiple domains complete with branded trademarks is a staple move. Last year, Search Engine Land revealed that scam tech-support ads on Google had skyrocketed, with scammers using hundreds of subdomains to trick consumers. However, phone numbers are still the go-to move, since that’s the best way to convince consumers to hand over their hard earned cash.

When transactions take place offline, it’s tougher for search engines to assess user experience and figure out whether or not an ad is spam. Fear-mongering is also easier offline, given that human touch.

Companies fight back

In the spring of this year, Google, Yahoo, AOL, Facebook and Twitter teamed up to create, aiming to educate the public and expose scammers. The organization's first report, dubbed the Bad Ads Trend Report, featured tech support ad scams (although there were many other niche scams mentioned as well ). In total, Google and Facebook reported they removed 4,000+ “suspicious ads” with over 2,400 links in the first quarter.

If you look at Google search results today compared to last year, the improvement is obvious. However, it’s not perfect. Some reputable tech-support paid ads have allegedly been removed, and scam ads have trickled in even through Google’s efforts. Meanwhile, scammers have found it easier to stay on other search engine sites like Bing (which isn’t part of the consortium).

Luck of the tech draw

It’s important to note that only those in the TrustInAds consortium are tackling specific ads. For example, if someone Googles AOL login help, you’ll find virtually no paid ads. However, if you Google tech support outside the consortium, such as for McAfee or Microsoft, there are plenty of ads. Some of them are reputable, while others may be scams. This means consumers have to look closely at who’s behind the ad to ensure it’s the actual company and not a third-party vendor.

Some solid steps have been taken, but there’s still plenty left to do. Experts agree that, unfortunately, it falls on the shoulders of tech brand companies to make sure their trademark is enforced. This can be done with better branding and ad display rules, but it will also require some old-fashioned elbow grease to knock out the scammers. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but when it’s used to scam consumers, it has to be stopped.

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