back to article 'Google cannot stop it, control it or curtail it...' Inside the murky world of fake addiction treatment center search spam

Addicts seeking substance abuse treatment are being deceived by phony medical clinics advertising on Google's business directory system – and the web giant seems unwilling or unable to fix the issue. An investigator who asked to remain anonymous provided The Register with research detailing online advertising in the substance …

  1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    I suppose I _should_ be shocked

    But somehow, I'm not.

    There are parasites in every ecosystem, but a healthy ecosystem has mechanisms to treat them.

  2. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

    Sorry, can't hear you over the sound of our money

    GMail, Groups, and Calendar will send out bulk messages that will never be shown to Google users because they're clearly spam. Google indexes thousands of GMail addresses listed in scam and phishing sites but doesn't close the accounts. Google has people driving, bicycling, and walking around with mapping cameras but doesn't use any of that to verify business appearances. Google API storage will host redirect pages to sites that Google has branded as unsafe. Google will not remove apps from Play Store after they've been flagged numerous times as harmful. Everything about Google collects data, often illegally, and says it's OK because it's that data never leaves the premises of it's 120,000+ employee global business.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Sorry, can't hear you over the sound of our money

      in other words

      Big Brother is alive and well but playing a waiting game until they have lots of nice juicy incriminating evidence against the majority of us. Then they'll take over and become BB for real.

      Governments will be brushed aside as being irrelevant dens of iniquity and uselessness.

      Google will be vying with Facebook and Amazon as to who will be the most evil and 'big brovverish'.

  3. Chris the bean counter Bronze badge

    Google can easily verify identity and address of the person doing the listing

    Not perfect but simple to do and would reduce fraud massively

  4. Claptrap314 Silver badge

    Umm, sure.

    "If anyone at Google wrote code with that kind of lax error checking, they'd hear about it from a manager."

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why the gripes about the SAMHSA link?

    Google should also include links to the Department of Facility Licensure (or equivalent) for the searcher's state (based on IP address, location data from the phone/device) so that there is a better chance people in need of help will find a real option and not another scam. Yes, that would require some work figuring out which department licenses/ certifies/ regulates treatment centers for each of all Amurka's fifty states, and then whether there is a "find licensed treatment near me" page on the department site, but once the list is compiled it is not too difficult to check back to ensure the links are still good (after elections is when things tend to change as the New Boss often wants to "make my mark" by rearranging departmental websites). Of course, I make the optimistic assumption that Google actually wants to first do no harm.

    1. Mark192 Bronze badge

      Re: Why the gripes about the SAMHSA link?

      From the article, it appears the SAMHSA link made people even less likely to see the paid adverts.

      That they're not getting enough (free) self-referrals from people diverted to the SAMHSA site perhaps suggests they need to have a word with SAMHSA or perhaps that low quality providers who do a lot of referrals to others are the ones moaning.

      Frankly though, if the legit providers are being outcompeted they need to up their marketing efforts.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why the gripes about the SAMHSA link?

      ever tried to call one of those state agencies, at the listed number in their main web page? Contacting a human at Google is probably easier (just kidding, I know THAT takes some major work involving candles, kittens, and a virgin's underwear).

      Digging you might be able to find someone, after several tries, and that person sometimes sounds nice and would be helpful if it weren't she's the assistant project intern. Anyone above in the tree 1) doesn't answer the phone 2) has an out of the office reply unchanged since two months ago.

  6. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

    Not Just Google

    I have seen ads on the boob tube for various medical practices. Some of them struck as a bit dodgy at best and I am not talking about chiropractors. So I am not truly surprised at this. I would think the number of licensed (maybe legitimate) treatment centers would be easy enough to police for Google. While a lucrative business potentially, there are licensing requirements that should make verifying a facility with the authorities relatively straightforward.

  7. RM Myers Bronze badge
    FAIL

    People cost money, automation is cheap

    When you have a monopoly on online search and advertising, there is no incentive to improve quality. Just do enough to keep people from open revolt and the regulators at bay, and pocket the cash. Cha-Ching.

    1. doublelayer Silver badge

      Re: People cost money, automation is cheap

      Well, Google could take a relatively weak first step that would be easy and lucrative; if a place in a frequently impersonated industry wants to advertise, make them make a large ad payment up front. That payment will be usable to buy ads, but if the advertiser is reported as fraudulent and subsequently taken down, Google keeps the money. The business can have the money returned if they pull all their ads and close their account. This would give Google an incentive to find fraudulent businesses so they can keep the money without providing a service, and it might also dissuade the scammers. Not a good solution, because Google should really be doing more verification and it only works against those who advertise on Google, but better than nothing.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    there's been significant progress in the substance abuse treatment industry?

    I'm skeptical about any real improvements, in the U.S. at least.

    I became addicted to pain pills about 15 years ago.

    Detox practices were draconian, rehab was costly and failure rates were high.

    I tried multiple programs over several years before I finally reached some level of "success", stopped relapsing.

    More recently a friend of mine is dealing with similar problems.

    Granted, with the acceptance of suboxone, detox is much easier now.. as long as you can afford it.

    Otherwise, everything else seems the same to me.

    If you have insurance, rehab programs want you but success rates are still pretty grim.

    Once the insurance runs out, you are dead to them.

    Not that I have any great ideas how to fix things.

    Addiction is just a tough nut to crack, even without all the complications of money/greed.

    1. Imhotep

      Re: there's been significant progress in the substance abuse treatment industry?

      I have a great deal of respect for people that can tackle and overcome that problem. Here's to your continued success.

  9. Palpy

    User-generated content.

    Letting users add whatever sh*t they want to GMB or GMaps is a great way to get a huge amount of data onto the platform, as long as one recognizes that much of the data will be a scam, a joke, or just plain stupid. (The tiny mining town of Empire, Nevada, USA, has a miniscule airport; on GMaps the airport is linked to a beautiful photo of Kowloon Bay at night. I do not know if the person who posted the photo, Stephen KY Hung, is making a joke or if he is simply clueless. In this case, I doubt that it is a scam.)

    Of course, dumb-squat stuff like a misplaced photo is pretty harmless. It's more annoying when a road marked on GMaps is simply not there on the ground. But money-stealing scams as described in the article to hand lean toward (or simply are) criminal activity.

    I can think of sites with user-generated content which are also efficiently user-curated; there may be errors but concerned users debate and correct misinformation pretty well. (No, not Wikipedia -- it can be and has been co-opted by misinformation. Wikipedia's system attempts accuracy, though.) And then there's Google, which appears to have what amounts to negative curating by users: users are enabled to easily add misinformation, but not to easily remove it.

    But look, Alphabet is not in the business of public good, it's in business for the money. Expect corruption.

  10. Quarak

    I spent over a year trying to remove an old listing for a business that we had closed down and moved. The new owner at the property was getting pretty vexed that google was still directing people it 12 months later. Then at the new site google automatically generated an incorrect listing seemingly from a street view image of the outside of the premises and I had to spend yet more time trying to get control of that that duplicate listing so I could remove it.

  11. jmch Silver badge

    Whack a mole

    It's unsurprising that any area with high fraud potential will attract lots of frauds. What's surprising is how easily the frauds get to the top 10 of listings. It implies that either Google's ranking algorithm* is so crap it can easily be gamed by SOI, or else that advertisers are being boosted in search results even when they are not marked as ads. Either way it's not a good look for Google

    *I refuse to call it AI

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Whack a mole

      We recently had problems obtaining a small specialized connector for our products with the Swiss supplier telling us that they would be available within 12-16 weeks so Purchasing started searching on the Internet and found a company via Google that advertised as have 2000 connectors in stock. Contacting the company returned the normal quotes for price and delivery withing 10 days so an order for 200 was placed but required pre-payment because we were a new customer.

      After the order was "processed" we were told delivery would be in 10 days, and 8 days later an email was sent claiming that the items had been damaged in shipping so they would be 14 days late. Since then no replies have ever been received - we were scammed.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Unintended consiquences.

    I've seen reports for years of legitimate businesses not being able to get postings/links on Googles services, while the spam flows freely. System broken by design?

  13. martinusher Silver badge

    Its the times we live in

    One of the larger AM stations serving the Los Angeles market (KFI) seems to live off advertising for attornies (mostly accident, some timeshare and tax), mortgate refiance and dubious investments. A few months ago there was also a sprinkling of car dealer ads but car sales have been in free fall so even that's stopped.

    Its a good bet that the online market follows the radio market. I just assume that all advertisements are scams and I don't bother trying to use Google to look anything up.

    (Incidentally, many people on the Left Coast assume that anything out of Florida is either a weird conspriacy theory or a scam.)

    1. DryBones

      Re: Its the times we live in

      Or Florida Man.

      I'm sorry, but those are the only 3 things we see.

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