NZ Florist Facing 7 Years for Hijacking Local Listings of Competitors in GMaps

Apparently Kendra Drinkwater, a Napier, New Zealand florist, has been charged with “using the Google search engine to dishonestly, and without claim of right, cause loss to seven Hawke’s Bay florists” and could face penalties of up to 7 years in jail.

She is accused of logging into Google Maps under multiple sign ins and using the community edit feature to edit the critical contact information of her local competitors.

From the Dominion Post article:

The owner of Flowers by Tanya in Hastings, Richie Davies, said it was frightening how easy it was to alter details. It was a matter of simply clicking “edit” on the company’s details on Google Maps.

Mr Davies said he had called Drinkwater once he and other florists had found out it was occurring. They thought Drinkwater may have been the culprit after someone logged on using her first name.

“I asked her to apologise and to stop altering the details. She claimed she’d had her details changed too. That’s when I went to the police.

According to the article, Google’s spokesperson Annie Baxter said it was the first report of “editing with ill intent” in New Zealand and warned business owners to register as the verified owners of their sites to stop others hacking their details.

What do I think of this whole matter?

While this may have been a first for New Zealand, it is certainly not a first for Maps nor a first in this particular industry. This exact behavior was first reported in May of 2008 in the Payday loan industry shortly after Google introduced community edits for Maps in the US. In September of last year there was widespread hijacking of florists by an affiliate spammer. Readers of this blog will remember my hijacking of the Microsoft’s listing in October. It will happen in every country where community edits are allowed. In that regard, I find Google’s comments, if accurate, somewhat disingenious.

It is fascinating to me that the incident lasted only 3 weeks in New Zealand before there was police intervention and criminal charges filed. While in the US it is not clear that a criminal investigation of the floral hijackings even took place let alone any charges being filed.

It speaks to the value of clear national laws as to how basic local business information is to be handled on line and the importance of enforceable penalties if this information is abused.

Is there any difference between what Ms. Drinkwater did in New Zealand and what Merchant Circle is doing with hotel listings? I think not.

I think that Google and every major player in local, would be well served by clear and unambiguous rules of this sort on a national scale. Google should take a lead in establishing clear rules and technical safeguards and fostering a national conversation about an appropriate legal framework and enforcement guidelines that would make this sort of activity clearly illegal in the entire US.

Otherwise, Local will become nothing more than a morass of inconsistencies, useless listings and law suits. Our time is really best spent on making local work not on fighting these inane rearguard battles.

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
NZ Florist Facing 7 Years for Hijacking Local Listings of Competitors in GMaps by

27 thoughts on “NZ Florist Facing 7 Years for Hijacking Local Listings of Competitors in GMaps”

  1. To get this kind of quick action, an industry needs strong leadership that cares enough to do something and they also need law enforcement to care enough to follow through, too.

    I’m still hearing folks shrug and say ‘the internet is the wild west’, as if that means wholesale deception and theft are just to be expected as part of the everyday problems of small businesses.

    Mike, you’re right in that much worse actions than this rogue florist’s are taking place here.

  2. @Cathy

    I agree that strong leadership would be required. I think Google & MSN & Yahoo & ATT would qualify as having the clout to qualify for assuming that position.

    I perceive that the way things typically get done in this country is by large corporations driving law makers to create laws that serve their interest.

    In this case, I believe that the larger and more reputable corporations in the local space would benefit from clear and steady guidelines that are enforceable in a standard way across the whole country.

    Trying to do this on a state by state level with smb activism might accomplish that but even then it is a moving target for the likes of Google.

    That is why I think that Google needs to take a leadership role in both creating the guidelines and laws and enforcement environment where this can happen in a matter of weeks rather than never.

  3. Amen, Brother Blumenthal. Especially the last three paragraphs. Deliberate pollution and mis-representation should have no place in Local, especially since innocent pollution and mis-representation already happens far too frequently.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. The hijacking of listings is causing real damage in the market, and given the philosophy of most law enforcement agencies in the U.S., I’m not surprised that no charges have been filed. So for now, it’s a civil matter. I agree that Google needs to regulate this growing and serious problem – if for no other reason that for the quality of the content. On this topic, I was reading the Google help forums when I came across this post:

    http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/maps/thread?tid=639a133b0bf609a9&hl=en

    This listing manager appears to expose a method by which a map spammer can get their competitors removed from the maps. Do you think there could be some merit to this claim? Have you seen this before? It certainly speaks to the overall problem of spamming and the damage that black hat marketers can do to their competition.

    Thanks again.

  5. @Charles

    When you have a big, complicated algo I have learned that one can never say never. Almost anything is possible even though it seems unlikely to me that they can precipitate the loss of place. I will however keep my ear to the ground for details.

    I think that Google alone can not really solve the problem. The way that their algo works like a vacuum cleaner sucking up dust from every corner of the internet a bogus listing can reach far and wide and have plenty of impact without Google even “knowing”.

  6. I don’t think drafting news laws is required here. Existing laws should already cover misrepresentation, sabotage and fraud causing loss and damage to a business.

    What Google should do is include a bold warning at top of edit feature, and such, about the possible consequences of falsely altering business details.

    Many have this false assumption of anonymity on the internet and naively think they are doing no wrong, or nobody will ever know. A little warning, at point of entry to such malicious behavior, could go a long way towards deterring lots of this.

  7. I don’t think “quality of content” will be enough to get Google to take the lead on preventing this kind of thing. If they cared about quality of content, they wouldn’t have taken the wiki-based approach to local business info.

    I wonder if it’ll take a class action lawsuit from all the businesses who’ve been damaged by Google’s policy on business listings.

  8. @Stever

    In Canada maybe, certainly in Nz but in the US laws affecting commerce are done on a state by state basis which is both cumbersome and inconsistent providing both an uneven environment for Google and a worse environment for the business.

    A case in point was the Locksmith scam that was ultimately shut down by the Postal service and it is taking years.

    Also it is not clear to me that the behavior of the likes of MC is illegal at all.

  9. I understand how State by State laws add a layer of foolishness to it all, but certainly most states must have something on the books against willful misrepresentation causing loss to a business.

    What if competitor B took out an ad in the newspaper while pretending to be competitor A, duping the sales guy at the paper into thinking he was actually dealing with competitor A. The ad then, that goes to print, says something misleading and paints company A in a bad light. Company A sees the ad, calls paper to ask WTF and sales guy says that was the ad that was proofed and approved before printing. Eventually it turns out it was someone outside Company A that took out the misleading ad, with paper trail and phone trail pointing to competitor B. Certainly there must be a law against that. And how is that any different than doing the same on a web page, vs. a paper page?

    Heck, libel may cover it in some cases (but only 16 states have criminal libel laws in place). In some cases Trademark Law might cover it, if the business who’s Google listings were altered, hijacked, etc.. was a trademarked business name, effectively causing damage to the brand. But I don’t think Trademark law is criminal.

    Anyways, seems to me ti is so obviously wrong there should be something in the law books that would fit.

    My personal opinion on what MC is doing is just as wrong, but i agree there, it might not actually be quite illegal.

  10. I wonder how long it will take for people to come to a decisive conclusion on the ambiguity as to whether the Internet is a game or real life. We have seen in Local that the Internet very much represents real life, and that malicious and fraudulent activities have real consequences for real people. Yet, in this country, the matter seems still to be shrouded in a certain vagueness that keeps our courts in a type of limbo about things that happen on the web. It is so interesting to see that this is not the case in NZ. Your MC reference is well taken, Mike? How can it be legal for them to do what they are doing with the names of small businesses? We both know it shouldn’t be legal, but there they are doing it.

    And there is Google opening the doors wide for this type of abuse and responding to the outcomes by trying to put the responsibility on the business owners’ shoulders to come use their product (claim their listing) or else! That’s no way to do business. I found the comment about this being the ‘first time’ to be disgraceful. Google is well aware of the situation and is skating along on foggy, slippery ice, in my opinion.

  11. I’d also like to know how NZ law enforcement obtained the info (IP and other user data) about the hijacker so quickly.

    Sock puppets seem to have no problem hiding behind multiple G accounts here, whether they’re writing ‘user reviews’ or changing valid business data.

  12. @Cathy

    I was wondering the same thing. It was so quick and thorough that implies that Google was either actively providing information or was being forced by local laws to do so.

    @Matt

    My understanding is that to a large extent Google is protected from “use of their platform” by the Communications Decency Act.

    @stever

    I am sure that there is a number of different laws that might be applied but in the few attempts I made at ascertaining the answers, they were not forthcoming. Since I have yet to be wronged by these types of actions I have no standing in our courts.

    Most of the florists I spoke with were unwilling to “raise Google’s ire” as it were and felt that they didn’t want to risk their standing with Google…even at the expense of being robbed. Go figure.

    @Miiriam

    I am with you.

    Mike

  13. Interestingly neither of the Florist’s mentioned in the article have yet claimed their listings in google Maps:

    Florist Gump -
    120 Dickens St, Napier South, Napier 4110, New Zealand

    Flowers By Tanya
    342 Heretaunga St E, Hastings 4122, New Zealand – (06) 868 8686

    Google has obviously not yet contacted those affected directly and helped them learn the process.

  14. Google is powerful and has enormous impact. Search is the power of the original yellow pages magnified one million times over. Google dominates search.

    Businesses realize this. They are pouring ever more money into web marketing and there are ever more resources poured into manipulating the web.

    When you say manipulating the web…you are primarily implying “manipulating google”.

    Google should be taking proactive steps to get control of this. Instead they take reactive steps to cover the embarrassing incidents. All things considered they simply refuse to put manpower into cleaning up problems in Maps and with SMB’s. They simply and stubbornly refuse to deal with it.

    There is lots of talk about small businesses being the backbone of the American economy. BS they basically get the shaft.

    Matt: I like your idea.

  15. @Mike

    Thanks for the perspective on the algo. If Google can’t solve the problem, maybe it will be a matter for courts to resolve, however, I wonder what effect, if any, does the “Is this Accurate?” link next to the “Directions” on singular business listings have? Is there a trigger or flag if enough users claim that an address is not correct? Perhaps not.

    @Stever

    I think “Unfair Competition” can be grounds for a civil suit with regard to the hypothetical you presented. Also, it might encourage more businesses to obtain a trademark to create another layer of protection from damage. Ultimately, any lawsuit may require the cooperation of the publisher to disclose IP addresses used when creating listings. Google has been big on anonymity when it comes to libelous material. I wonder if they would be cooperative in such as circumstance (lawsuit).

  16. Hijacking is a major concern for Google. I spoke with one of the Google Local reps (Jen) at SMX West last year and we discussed how this is really Google’s #1 focus when it comes to fixing Local, which is great. As with all SEO, it’s tough to compete with companies who are not willing to play by the rules.

  17. Other ways to Highjack?

    Not sure if there was another Google change in the last few days, as the spam and highjack crowd just got everything back. In my little corner of the world, we dropped off the map again on Friday night. Local search for us had been good for 4 weeks, after months (years?) of being overwhelmed with spam.

    This recent change has a few spam folks rising back onto the Map, and we are off local altogether, making me wonder about other ways to highjack besides editing the local listing?

    The Google local search for “Locksmith San Diego” is at 65% spam or fraudulent addresses. For 4 weeks we were at 10% spam, so I was thinking Google had a little jump on the black hats.
    False hope.

  18. @Chrales
    “Is this Accurate” is a lightweight, quick piece of info that Google is gathering to help them triangulate both listing accuracy and map accuracy….They have three layers of user generated content for business listings- “Is this Accurate”, Community Edits & the LBC. They have several for Maps accuracy. They match all of that against scraped and purchased information so that the algo can make assessments about which information is accurate and current.

    “Is this Accurate” is a new feature so we don’t know how Google relies on it versus the many other signals that they look at and what sort of measures they have put in place to prevent fraud.

    @Ryan
    Quality issues, including hijackings, have plagued Maps since day one, over 4 years ago. While it may be a priority, they have not really applied the time and energy necessary to wrestle the whole problem to the ground. Glen’s comments are indicative of that. The locksmith issues have been on-going in Maps now for almost two years. So while I laud their focus, I will respect their results. good luck on your new blog.

    @John
    John, it started in the US and even with the experience Google garnered here they were unable or unwilling to change their user generated content system enough to prevent it from happening elsewhere in much the same way when they rolled out the capability elsewhere. See Glen’s comment for proof that is has been around in the US

    @Glenn
    Are you seeing the bad results just in SD? Statewide?

  19. I have a client that was using a monthly fee based business to put his Google LBL in the first page results for the term “bankruptcy attorney jacksonville fl”. The company was charging him $200 per month to do this. After consideration, he decided to stop with the service-and almost immediately noticed that his listing was removed from Google SERP’s on the local map results. My guess is that this company utilized some of the tactics detailed on this blog post and comments, to sabotage this customer. My advise to local businesses is to NOT use a monthly fee based company in optimizing your listing, as there is not monthly work that goes into doing it. If you use someone at all, use someone that will charge a one time fee, and turn ALL future updating over to the business owner. By the way, it’s not nice to scam a lawyer. They know how to sue.

  20. @Micheal

    The tactics used by this florist in NZ were strictly rookie kinds of behaviors that only would work against unsophisticated business owners who had not yet claimed their listings.

    It is unclear whether the actions of the company that your client was dealing with were unethical or not. Without some analysis that would be difficult to determine. In my opinion not money well spent. It would make more sense to spend the money creating a sustainable presence online.

    I would however suggest that choosing an ethical professional in the local search field requires no less due diligence than choosing an ethical provider in any field. A place to start that search is Getlisted.org’s list of trusted local search providers. There are certainly a number of operations that use tactics that are less than appropriate.

  21. A spamer tatic that is fairly common is to list names on addresses that are already on Google Local, and use different phone numbers.

    I’ve had 23 spam listings for my address or business name alone. Some with my business name and address, some with another business name, and my address. By asking for verifacation on this scam listings at LBC, for those listings that use my address I get a postcard and I can claim and then delete the listing.

    Recently I added a new listing with a different name, and within a month the same name was listed with a different address and contact info. Not sure how I’ll go about changing or claiming that local listing.

    Spammers remain a moving target…

  22. Old technique, new tricks.

    Used to be domain hijacking, now it’s this.

    I don’t think the day will come when technology defeats human ingenuity!

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