How to protect yourself from fake ads

If you think fake ads are just a Saturday Night Live gag, think again. They’re an ongoing problem — with real consequences for consumers. Especially online.

One example: fake Google ads.

If you’re in need of the name of a local locksmith, electrician, plumber, repairperson or other service, do you go to the Internet and Google for it?

If you do, beware: A recent newspaper column notes that many of the names and links provided through a Google search and its AdWords application aren’t real.

They are “lead generators” — a group of call centers that game high-tech Google algorithms to pass as local services with physical operations nearby. Once they receive your inquiry through Google, they send a subcontractor to visit you, who then overcharges you for the service you requested online — perhaps three or four times as much as was estimated.

Notes the column: “The model has migrated to an array of services, including garage door repair, carpet cleaning, moving and home security. Basically, they surface in any business where consumers need someone in the vicinity to swing by and clean, fix, relocate or install something.”

According to the Consumer Federation of America, these operations are among the fastest-growing sources of consumer complaints.

Although a Google spokesman claims that “the company worked hard to check bad actors and quickly removed listings that violate its policies,” many critics feel that Google is too slow to react because it “is perennially a step behind a group of sophisticated swindlers.”

Another site where consumers need to beware of fake ads is Craigslist.

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According to the Houston Chronicle, “Although Craigslist staff assert that for the most part everyone who uses Craigslist has good intentions, there’s still that small percentage of people who don’t. They’re the ones posting phony ads to steal your Craigslist account information or to somehow swindle money from your business.”

Social media ads can also be sources of fakery — for advertisers and consumers.

A number of false advertising schemes have appeared on Facebook, from fake “likes” generated by “click farms” to fake profiles of “fans” of legitimate ads. And sometimes the merchandise advertised on Facebook has turned out to be counterfeit.

What can consumers do to protect themselves from fake advertising schemes?

The Houston Chronicle recommends the following common-sense recommendations when checking out ads on Craigslist (and its recommendations make sense for all ads):

  • Pay attention to the content: “Legitimate businesses and ads, for example, don’t promote illegal or pornographic content or solicitations, nor do they contain content that “offers, promotes, advertises or provides links to unsolicited products or services,” according to Craigslist’s terms of use.”
  • Deal only with local buyers and sellers: “Dealing locally allows you to inspect merchandise and property if you’re the buyer, or ensure that you get legitimate money if you’re the seller.”
  • Be careful about payment methods: “Another flagrant sign that you’re dealing with a fake ad is when someone requests that you pay via a money wiring service, such as Western Union or MoneyGram. Furthermore, you should also ignore any ads that offer to do business with you via any sort of escrow service.”
  • If you use Craigslist for job-hunting purposes, immediately reject any ad that asks you to give your social security number or financial information up front just to apply for the job. Also be wary of any ads that make liberal use of the words “recruitment,” “careers,” “partners” and “staffing.”
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And of course, know exactly who you’re dealing with.

Do your homework. Check the reputations and credentials of your buyers and sellers through reputable sources. See if any complaints have been filed with government or consumer agencies against anyone with whom you propose to do business. Find out if any of them have been the subjects of civil or criminal legal actions. Read all fine print. Don’t allow your money or your goods to change hands unless you’re 100 percent satisfied that you’re getting legitimate goods and services from a genuine seller, or actual payment from a real buyer.

As always, caveat emptor.

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

  • Alan Gore

    Malware in online advertising is a huge problem and has led to a majority of people running ad blocker plugins in their browsers. Some of these plugins have a checkbox that would let through ads that are “well-behaved” according to various criteria. No popups and no malware are obvious criteria, but advertisers have yet to sign off on any definition of permissible advertising.

  • jim6555

    I will almost never respond to a Google ad that has only a toll-free phone number to call. Not having a local number is a good indication that your call will be answered by a distant call center. If there is a toll-free number and the company name is given, a Google search for the company’s name might help you learn whether the provider is locally based.

    North American toll-free numbers are ten digit numbers that begin with 800, 888, 877,866, 855 and 844.

  • ctporter

    You can find good providers of various services the old fashioned way with a modern twist by getting recommendations from your neighbors through a private social media group called Nextdoor. I like using this because the recommendations are from people I know, and can judge whether the recommendations have merit or not. We switched from comcast to Century Link for our internet provider based on the experiences of my neighbors nearby.

  • Grant Ritchie

    LOVE me some Nextdoor, CT! dumped Comcast too, based on, among other things, the recommendations of my neighbors. Nextdoor is educational, i’ve gotten some neat free stuff through them, and best of all, I’m currently helping a couple of my neighbors by fostering their two wonderful kitties while they go househunting. Life’s good! (^;^)~

  • ctporter

    awww! bet it will be hard to let the kitties go when it is time, they are so adorable (we have two new adorable ourselves and find ourselves totally entranced with cats all over again)

  • Grant Ritchie

    It sure will. With my two house guests, I have seven now, and (^;^)~s are all SO diffeerent. People with only one don’t know what they’re missing. :-)

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