I happened upon a fraud this week, which I now think operates at larger scale.
We needed to get new springs installed on our garage door so I did what most people do: I turned to the Internet. I found Harris Garage Door Repair Company in Arlington, Massachusetts. The provider had 23 great reviews, a few of which even mentioned a particular service person by name. There was even one negative review, so it was all quite believable.
The problem is: this company does not exist.
A technician did show up, but handed me a business card of a different company. Right away I knew something was amiss. The gentleman was inexperienced, ended up encountering a problem and then tried to tell me that I had a bigger issue. I’m no expert in garage doors, but I do know a thing or two about complex systems so luckily I was able to prevent from getting swindled. Eventually, the gentleman phoned a friend who helped him figure out the issue. I have a much louder garage door now, but I was ready for this gentleman to be gone. So off he went after getting it minimally working again.
I got curious about Harris Garage Door Repair Company in Arlington, MA. Turns out that they only existed on Google Maps and used a VOIP phone number from one of the leading providers. I drove by their listed address at 22 Mill Street in Arlington, but there was no such company to be found.
Interestingly, a number of other garage door repair businesses in Arlington, MA also do not exist at their listed address and they too use VOIP numbers from the very same leading providers.
Some of these garage door repair companies have websites and others do not. I traced hosting location of the websites that purport to be legitimate businesses in addition to the website of the gentleman that showed up to my house. It turns out that they’re all hosted by the same tiny hosting provider in Atlanta. Hugely coincidental!
Here’s what I discovered: these garage door companies do not exist and are cutouts for a lead generation service. When I discovered this I called the businesses back to press them for a physical street address and to confirm my suspicion that they’re a lead gen service. They hung up on me and blocked my number, which instantly rendered me unable to contact any of the garage door companies in question. So clearly, these cutouts are all connected.
When I did additional digging on the lead gen service I noticed some interesting points. Their website can be traced to the very same hosting provider in Atlanta as the others. The lead gen service also offers social media services, so those 24 reviews with consistently cropped profile pictures? Questionable legitimacy to be sure.
So who pays for this? One could argue that I got my garage door fixed, so what’s the problem? The problem is that this defrauds legitimate, honest small businesses that should have gotten my business instead. I was swayed by the 24 reviews and the astro-turfing. Sapna Maheshwari recently wrote a piece in the NYTimes where she says that “an increase of just one star in a rating on Amazon correlates with a 26 percent increase in sales…”
My suspicion: this lead gen company is stuffing various services with fake businesses and fake reviews for a whole host of services certainly not limited to garage door repair.
Even more egregious is that some of the legitimate small businesses pay to advertise in order to be viewed above the fraudsters.
Google has since removed Harris Garage Door Repair Company in Arlington, MA from Maps, but many other fraudsters remain.
My takeaway: ground truth becomes even more important in the digital age, which is precisely what I do for the cloud infrastructure and platform services space.