Scammers are using Google results to target desperate travelers

Need to rebook a canceled flight? Beware of ‘malvertising.’
2 month before July 19, 2023 at 13:47 Author: Editors Desk Source: The Washington Post
(Washington Post Illustration; iStock)
(Washington Post Illustration; iStock)

After sitting on the runway for an extended wait, Shmuli Evers’s plane returned to the terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport. The weather earlier this week was too dangerous to fly, so his 7 a.m. flight to Florida would not be taking off. Immediately, the line for Delta’s in-house customer service began to stretch through the airport, filled with passengers from his flight. Evers figured he could avoid the wait by calling Delta’s customer service hotline, so he turned to Google.

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.”

After many redirections to international numbers, he began speaking with a friendly voice who said he was a Delta representative. The “representative” asked Evers for his name and flight itinerary and said they had canceled his existing flight manually. He then directed Evers to a flight at Newark Liberty Airport, which he could book for five times the original price of his ticket.

To confirm the ticket, he texted Evers from a different number than he had called from. Evers became suspicious and asked where the representative was located. When the representative responded that he was two hours south of Manhattan in Rochester — which is actually north of the city, on the shore of Lake Ontario — Evers suspected this was a scam and hung up. The supposed help desk employee was persistent, continuing to send text messages about how hard he had worked to find this flight and how all Evers needed to do was provide his payment information to get to Florida on time.

“I just ignored it from there. Go away,” Evers said. “That’s when … I looked up the number and I realized that Delta was not the only one that had their listing created, most likely, by scammers.”

Evers posted several tweets Sunday morning to relay his experience, and in creating a now-viral thread, published screenshots of Google results that appear to show incorrect phone numbers for several other airlines; Evers found that Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, Air France and more had been affected.

“We do not tolerate this misleading activity, and are constantly monitoring and evolving our platforms to combat fraud and create a safe environment for users and businesses,” Google said in a statement emailed to The Washington Post. “Our teams have already begun reverting the inaccuracies, suspending the malicious accounts involved, and applying additional protections to prevent further abuse.”

In a Tuesday search The Post conducted, these numbers had all been replaced with their accurate counterparts listed on the airlines’ websites. However, while searching for “Delta Air Lines” using the Safari app, The Post found two potentially fraudulent websites with sponsored ads on Google that appeared above the official Delta website in search results.

Scams in which criminals alter the contact information of major companies are relatively common and have targeted a number of travel-based industries in recent years, including rental car companies and airlines, said Amy Nofziger, the director of fraud victim support at AARP.

Since Sunday, Evers said, other Twitter users have reached out to share stories of similar incidents. “There’s people that said, ‘This scam cost me hundreds of dollars and thousands of dollars,’” he said.

Here are the best ways to identify this type of scam and prevent it from happening to you.

How do scammers alter Google search results?

Google users can contribute information to search results, which can lead to scammers replacing official business phone numbers with false ones.

They may do this by contributing information to a business’s page by acting as that business online. Until someone realizes that the phone number is incorrect, the false number will remain on the Google business page.

Nofziger says potential scammers can place false contact information in other ways, too; they may impersonate an official company account on social media or reply to posts on internet complaint boards with this information.

Search results for airline customer service numbers has been a point of contention between search engine companies and scammers for years. In 2021, ads at the top of Google search results for queries like “United customer service” would surface ads from fake sites, essentially paying Google to defraud its users. The fake ads would appear higher than the “infobox” with the airline’s real phone number and sometimes linked to sites hosted by Google, adding to their credibility.

What red flags suggest I’m being scammed?

If you are unsure whether a company’s phone number is correct, visit their official website to confirm.

Official websites often have the most reliable information on how to contact the airline, including through live chat, phone and email. These sites tend to have a “.com” ending for U.S.-based businesses. Nofziger recommends avoiding a potential scam by repeatedly verifying the phone number listed on the official website.

Red flags may also appear in the price point and payment method. Prices should not be significantly higher than what you originally paid — in Evers’ case, five times the original price. You should also be wary if an individual asks you to pay via prepaid gift card, wire transfer, Venmo or cryptocurrency.

“In a lot of our situations we hear from victims who say they were offered a good deal if they paid via a certain way,” Nofziger said. “The majority of the time, the criminals were asking to be paid by prepaid gift card. The reason they’re asking for those forms of payment is because they are quick and easily accessible to consumers, and they’re quick and easy and accessible to criminals to download the money off of that card and steal it from you.”

Although these situations can be stressful, Nofziger advises to take a deep breath and “trust your gut” before contacting customer service. Scams like this exploit the sense of urgency travelers feel when their flight is canceled. If a salesperson or representative is pressuring you to act quickly, it may be indicative of a scam.

Who should I call if I get scammed?

Nofziger emphasized the importance of reporting a scam if you encounter one. Airlines may open investigations into these cases, and Google can edit the information on its business pages and suspend bad actors’ accounts.

“Whenever we become aware of an alleged scam targeting our customers, including in this situation, we immediately conduct an investigation. Using the facts gained from an investigation, when able, we can then address each unique situation as appropriate with the necessary legal means at our disposal,” said Drake Castañeda, a corporate communications official at Delta.

If you live in the United States, you can report scams and fraud to the Federal Trade Commission here or contact the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center here. You may also contact the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline, which is available to people of all ages regardless of AARP membership, at 877-908-3360. Posting about it online as Evers did is also a useful method to warn other consumers.

“It does sometimes take one person to have this experience happen to them for other people to realize that might happen to them as well,” said Nofziger. “Anywhere that you can report it and share the information to help other people not be a victim and to educate is fantastic. If you have a voice, use it.”

Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, ITA Airways, Qantas Airways and Turkish Airlines did not respond to The Post’s requests for comment. Air France confirmed its correct U.S. phone number is 800-237-2747 but declined to comment further.

Jeremy Merrill contributed to this report.


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