If you think fake ads are just a Saturday Night Live gag, think again. They’re an ongoing problem — with real consequences for consumers. Especially online.
One example: fake Google ads.
If you’re in need of the name of a local locksmith, electrician, plumber, repairperson or other service, do you go to the Internet and Google for it?
If you do, beware: A recent newspaper column notes that many of the names and links provided through a Google search and its AdWords application aren’t real.
They are “lead generators” — a group of call centers that game high-tech Google algorithms to pass as local services with physical operations nearby. Once they receive your inquiry through Google, they send a subcontractor to visit you, who then overcharges you for the service you requested online — perhaps three or four times as much as was estimated.
Notes the column: “The model has migrated to an array of services, including garage door repair, carpet cleaning, moving and home security. Basically, they surface in any business where consumers need someone in the vicinity to swing by and clean, fix, relocate or install something.”
According to the Consumer Federation of America, these operations are among the fastest-growing sources of consumer complaints.
Although a Google spokesman claims that “the company worked hard to check bad actors and quickly removed listings that violate its policies,” many critics feel that Google is too slow to react because it “is perennially a step behind a group of sophisticated swindlers.”
Another site where consumers need to beware of fake ads is Craigslist.
According to the Houston Chronicle, “Although Craigslist staff assert that for the most part everyone who uses Craigslist has good intentions, there’s still that small percentage of people who don’t. They’re the ones posting phony ads to steal your Craigslist account information or to somehow swindle money from your business.”
Social media ads can also be sources of fakery — for advertisers and consumers.
A number of false advertising schemes have appeared on Facebook, from fake “likes” generated by “click farms” to fake profiles of “fans” of legitimate ads. And sometimes the merchandise advertised on Facebook has turned out to be counterfeit.
What can consumers do to protect themselves from fake advertising schemes?
The Houston Chronicle recommends the following common-sense recommendations when checking out ads on Craigslist (and its recommendations make sense for all ads):
- Deal only with local buyers and sellers: “Dealing locally allows you to inspect merchandise and property if you’re the buyer, or ensure that you get legitimate money if you’re the seller.”
- Be careful about payment methods: “Another flagrant sign that you’re dealing with a fake ad is when someone requests that you pay via a money wiring service, such as Western Union or MoneyGram. Furthermore, you should also ignore any ads that offer to do business with you via any sort of escrow service.”
- If you use Craigslist for job-hunting purposes, immediately reject any ad that asks you to give your social security number or financial information up front just to apply for the job. Also be wary of any ads that make liberal use of the words “recruitment,” “careers,” “partners” and “staffing.”
And of course, know exactly who you’re dealing with.
Do your homework. Check the reputations and credentials of your buyers and sellers through reputable sources. See if any complaints have been filed with government or consumer agencies against anyone with whom you propose to do business. Find out if any of them have been the subjects of civil or criminal legal actions. Read all fine print. Don’t allow your money or your goods to change hands unless you’re 100 percent satisfied that you’re getting legitimate goods and services from a genuine seller, or actual payment from a real buyer.
As always, caveat emptor.