Centre for Internet & Society

Googling for anything might seem like a good idea, but searching for contacts of businesses and customer care numbers is landing people in the hands of conmen.

The article by Tushar Kaushik was published in Economic Times on January 30, 2019.

Many use Google or other search engines for specific contact numbers — the customer care numbers of a bank, for instance. The search results do not throw up bona fide numbers, but those of conmen waiting to lure a victim. The conmen, knowing what the caller is seeking, and on the pretext of helping, cunningly makes them part with information such as bank account, debit/credit card and even the OTP.

About 20-odd people have been duped in this manner in the past month in Bengaluru, according to the city’s cybercrime police. About 20-30 victims have fallen prey in Gurugram in the last one-and-a-half months. In Maharashtra and Hyderabad, the trend of fake numbers being seeded on Google Maps and being used to dupe people is being observed since October 2018. The frauds are helped by the fact that any user can edit contact information on Google Maps. The Maharashtra cyber police reportedly notified Google authorities regarding this.

Inspector and in-charge of cyber police station at Gurugram, Anand Kumar, said another variant of such cases was on the rise. People searching for contacts to help them return products they bought from e-commerce websites have been led to fake numbers. “In the past one-and-half months, about 20-30 such complaints have been received,” Kumar said.

Srinivas Kodali, a Hyderabad-based data security researcher, said similar incidents using fake numbers being uploaded on Google Maps had occurred in Hyderabad 2-3 months ago. He claimed Google had been informed of the incidents.

Illustrating another instance of the way Google searches are misused, dairy brand Amul issued a legal notice to Google, alleging that a series of fake B2B campaigns regarding Amul Parlours and Distributors have started through fake websites using Google search ads since September 2018.

Bengaluru-based app developer and co-founder of TBG Labs Harsha Halvi said it was fairly easy for any conman to seed his own number and masquerade as a contact number and make it appear in a Google search. He said all it takes is a very good understanding of search engine optimisation (SEO).

Gurshabad Grover, senior policy officer at The Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru, said, “The problem right now is Google is not making it clear whether something is verified information or is crowdsourced. On Google Maps, businesses can be claimed by legitimate owners. A suggestion is that Google verify the claimed entities,” Grover said. He added that people too should exercise vigilance while accessing information online.

Additional commissioner of police (crime) at Bengaluru Alok Kumar said Google could not be held responsible for such incidents as individuals seeded the fake numbers.

Reacting to the incidents, a spokesperson from Google India said, “Overall, allowing users to suggest edits provides comprehensive and up-to-date info, but we recognise there may be occasional inaccuracies or bad edits suggested by users.” The spokesperson said when such issues are reported to Google, the claims are investigated and action is taken in line with the findings.