Google Business listings held for ransom in online scam: Rob Wolchek cracks the code

This is a story about modern-day digital hijackers.

"There's my address, there's my reviews, okay and that's his number," said Butch, looking at his phone.

It's about tampering with Google Business listings.

"It still has my pictures, my reviews, it's still my company basically, but somebody went in and changed the name,"  said Kevin.

"They hijacked our reviews as well," said Anthony of Empire Plumbing.

And it's a story about somebody who says they can fix it.

Rob Wolchek: "When you first got the call did you think maybe this was Google trying to help you?"

"Yes," said Sue and Al of Musket Sewer Cleaning.

But it sure ain't Google on the phone.

"Shut up. Shut your mouth. I control the conversation," says someone named Tyler. "You know how you make sure we're real?  You try the service and if you get scammed - it wasn't real."

Al runs Musket Sewer Cleaning with his wife Sue.

"It's been around for three generations," said Al. "My grandfather, my father and me."

If you've got a plugged-up pipe, what do you do? You Google to find somebody like Al.

But for now, you can't even find their company on Google.

Butch fixes roofs.

"I get a lot (of business) from Google - not right now," he said.

That's because if you're looking for Butch's company, Pilgrim Roof Repair - a tampered page shows up.

"It's got my address and all my reviews," he said.

But not his company's name or its phone number.

The same thing happened to Anthony and his family business, Empire Plumbing.

"I noticed that it said Warren Plumbing and Electrical, etc," Anthony said. "It wasn't reflecting Empire Plumbing but as soon as you searched it in Google that's what popped up."

"If you Google for a plumber in Taylor or something like that, you're going to find my listing, but that number and that name is not mine," said Kevin.

Kevin has run A1 Bargain for 35 years - but it shows up as "Plumbers Air Conditioning Electrical DyyerVent & Air-Duct Cleaning LLC" not the name of his company.  Whoever messed with this profile is even using pictures of his trucks.

"They should find me, but they won't find me," he said. "They're going to find somebody right now who isn't even answering the phone."

Wolchek had the same experience: "Just like Kevin said, no answer."

This isn't what you might think - competitors trying to steal customers.

In fact, the business names their pages have been changed to, are all bogus companies.

Here's the trick.

A recorded voicemail message is sent to victims: "Hi there. This is Business Verified. We've been trying to reach you with urgent news regarding your Google Business listing."

"I'm thinking, oh there's somebody from Google - these are the guys I need to talk to," Butch said.

They get a phone message, and when the business person calls the number back, they get someone on the line who knows all about their business, knows what happened to their Google listing and says they can help you.

Wolchek: "Do they kind of act like they're with Google?"

"Yes they do," said Anthony.

But soon the business people realize, the person on the line is trying to do business with them.

"I think it's shameful," said Al's wife Sue.

They'll fix the problem - for a price.

Wolchek: "How much money did he want?"

"Two hundred ninety-eight dollars," Butch said.

((rob and sue))
Wolchek: "How much was the fee?"

"Close to $300 dollars," said Sue. "I'm not paying to fix something that's not my fault and is fraudulent."

Dr. Florian Schaub is the director of the Security, Privacy Interaction Lab at the University of Michigan.

"They're not saying they're Google but it sounds like they're Google," said Schaub. "If you find a method to trick Google into handing over access to a business profile for one company, you can try it again for another company, and another company, and another company."

Schaub thinks it's pretty clever. The $298 "ransom"  fee is probably paid by lots and lots of companies. And it's a low enough figure that law enforcement probably won't get involved.  

"From the criminal perspective it's more about assessing the risk of getting caught versus having a payday," Schaub said.

Well the cops may not want to investigate - but Wolchek will.

Business Verified worker: "You're from the ....."

Wolchek: "I'm from the news."

Business Verified worker; "TV station?"

Wolchek: "Yeah. I'm from the TV station."

Business Verified Worker: "I'll have somebody give you a call back."

No one calls Wolchek back, so he keeps trying.

Wolchek: "Hi it's Rob Wolchek from FOX 2 in Detroit and I'm recording this call for broadcast.. Who is this I'm speaking with?"

The phone call at the other end hangs up abruptly.

Wolchek: "Hmmm."

Finally he gets "Tyler" on the phone who's happy to be recorded and have his voice broadcast..

Wolchek: "What's the name of your company?"

Tyler: "Business Verified. We're located in Boca Raton Florida."

He says his company refers businesses to someone who will get their Google listing back in order - but he won't tell Wolchek who exactly it is that will be referred to.

Wolchek: "Can I talk to that person before I give you money?"

Tyler: "No sir.  That's like asking can you fix my car, do the tires, and if it looks good I'll pay you afterward."

Wolchek: "That's kind of actually how it works. Usually when you go to a car mechanic, you give him the money after he fixes the car."

"Tyler" also can't tell Wolchek what name will show up on his credit card statement if he pays him.

Wolchek: "I don't even know if you're in America or not.  Where in Boca Raton?"

Tyler: "Yeah. Understandable. Yeah, so at the end of the day it's gonna have to come down to the fact whether you believe me or not. It's a service in which we provide and personal information like that, is not to be shared."

Wolchek is not sold. He tells Tyler that he'll call back. Rob does the next day but he doesn't get Tyler on the phone.

Wolchek: "Hi this is Rob Wolchek from FOX 2 news in Detroit. I'm recording this call for broadcast. I wanted to find out what you guys do"

Eugene: "Okay. So you're an idiot. You need to get a life. This is absolutely immature and stupid. and if you expect me to believe I'm on the news and even if I am, it's ridiculous and find something better to do with your time."

Hmmm, seems like a nice guy - but Rob wants to speak with Tyler again.

Tyler: "Hey Rob, how are you doing today Rob?"

Wolchek: "I'm recording this call for broadcast."

Tyler seems confident he can convince Wolchek that this is a legitimate business and not tied in with any Google Business hackers.

Tyler: "To even gain access into anything somebody owns on Google is physically impossible. If you think otherwise I'd like you to try - or find somebody to try.  

"You're with the news right? I'm sure somebody would be listening and inform you that that's an ignorant statement to make. And I say it's ignorant because you have no substance behind it. You have no idea what you're talking about."

Here's the substance - these business guy's pages are changed - and all of a sudden so is Tyler's story.

Wolchek: "Business Verified, is that the name of your company?"

Tyler: "No sir. It's Direct Listings."

Wolchek: "Where are you located?"

Tyler: "Oh yeah. We're located in northern Florida. Jacksonville."

Did this guy forget what he told Wolchek?

The day before's conversation:

Wolchek: "What's the name of your company?"

Tyler: "Business verified. We're located in Boca Raton, Florida."

(Okay, back to the current conversation)

Wolchek: "Do you have the name and number of your boss or somebody that can tell me a little more about your company?"

Tyler: "I've told you everything that you're going to know.  I've told you everything because you're speaking to him."

Wolchek: "You're the boss?  Tyler? Tyler, what's your last name?"

Tyler: "Oh yeah. My last name is FOX 12 News."

Wolchek: "Okay."

You know, Rob is being nice to this guy, giving him a chance. He wants to help these local business people --- the plumbers, the sewer cleaner, the roof repairman. And, Wolchek want to help us find these companies on Google when they need them.

But Tyler says ...

Tyler: "Shut up. Shut your mouth. I control the conversation."

Wolchek: "All right Tyler, if you want to have somebody from your company contact me that would be great. Otherwise, I'm just going to assume you work for a scam artist company and I think you're scamming people. And if you can live with yourself doing that, that's cool."

Tyler: "Female tendancies. You're a female. You just made an assumption. You said I'm going to assume. Did you not?  Who else assumes? What gender assumes the most? A female. You were raised by your mother, all right. You have no substance, no facts, nothing to hold down anything."

Tyler, what a guy! And guys like Tyler aren’t just hurting small businesses.

They’re targeting you, the customer, luring you in with fake reviews, scooping up your personal information, and according to a court case filed by Google last year, selling your information.

FOX 2 found no businesses called "Business Verified" or "Direct Listings" in Florida and the phone number for the company came back to a Florida man who died in 2019.

Wolchek called Google and they got our victims squared away, a Google Spokesperson told us:

"We do not tolerate attempts to mislead people. We reverted these inaccuracies, suspended the malicious accounts involved, and are always applying new protections to prevent further abuse. It’s our priority to provide a safe and helpful platform for users and businesses." – Google Spokesperson

If your business has been targeted, Google wants to hear from you. And if you’re a customer, and think you see a scam, Google wants you to report it. 

CLICK HERE to report to Google Businesses.

CLICK HERE to report misleading business information on Google Maps.

See legal action that Google has taken HERE.