Consumer Investigation: Google it? Your search results might be scams!

News10NBC Investigates: Scams for sale

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It’s a company so often associated with internet searches; it’s now used as a verb. If you want to find out something, you Google it.  But I found a scammer so cunning, it outsmarted that popular search engine. During four months of tracking the actions of a company selling keto gummies, I found when I googled for answers, nothing was as it seemed.

When I googled “keto gummies,” the first results were ads, all of which were questionable. For example, when I clicked on one of them, I was directed to a fake article espousing the efficacy of the gummies.  It was written by someone identified as Adam Gold, a Florida-based certified health coach. But a search of the doctor’s picture reveals that on another site his name is Miguel Acebedo, a Chilean cardiologist, and on another site the same man wearing a physician’s white lab coat is identified as Jan Drahokoupil, a Czech cardiologist. But he’s actually not a doctor.  He just plays one on camera. He’s a stock photo model known on the Dreamstime stock photo website as “Handsome old doctor, ID# 79702797.”

I asked Google leaders whether it screened ads to make sure they’re not scams. Davis Thompson, a Google spokesperson, wrote, “We have extensive ads policies prohibiting ads that seek to scam users, and we block or remove billions of ads each year that violate our ads policies. We are reviewing the ads in question and will take appropriate action.”

But as I tracked the scams for months, I found that when Google removed one scam ad, another replaced it. and most had these things in common. The registrar is usually Namecheap Inc. The owner’s name is always redacted for privacy. And the physical address is in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. But it’s very unlikely the company is actually located there. I know that because the address listed in the website registration is the same address used by a company called Withheld for Privacy which, as the name implies, helps companies keep domain registration information private.

Surprisingly, I also found scams among the organic. so-called real results as well. The red flags jumped off the screen. Why would the University of Pittsburgh Department of Psychiatry have an article on keto gummies?

As it turns out, it doesn’t. When you click on the result, you’re directed to the web address, And the post is a bogus ad claiming Shark Tank endorsed keto gummies.  That’s a lie.  “Shark Tank” star Lori Greiner took to TikTok with a warning, “They are fake. They are scam ads. Do not pay attention to them.  Do not buy these products.”

But it’s really hard for consumers to do their own research when the scams are mixed in with the authentic Google search results.  One Google result makes it look as though the American Heart Association is endorsing keto gummies.  But when I clicked on the site, I was directed to another scam, a fake Fox News article again falsely claiming that “Shark Tank” endorsed the gummies. 

And it seems no legitimate organization is immune to the scammer’s hand, not even a tiny community college in New York’s Southern Tier. On one Google search using the search term “keto gummies” one of my search results looked as though SUNY Broome had published a review of the gummies. But when you click on the link, you’re not taken to the college’s web site, instead you end up on a bogus site with a fake ad claiming two “Shark Tank” contestants, Megan Reilly and her sister Sarah Nuse, created the gummies.

Yes, Reilly and Nuse were on “Shark Tank” in 2012. But they weren’t pitching gummies. Instead it was a children’s dance company called Tippi Toes. 

So, Google, I have questions.  How were scammers able to manipulate real search results? How did Google, a company with an annual revenue of $305.6 billion, allow it to happen?  And how can consumers trust that our Google search results are even real?

Thompson responded, “Bad actors are constantly evolving their methods to try to evade our protections, requiring close attention from our teams. We’ve reviewed the additional screenshots you shared with us and taken appropriate action.”

When I alerted SUNY Broome, a spokesman wrote, “Our Information Technology Services (ITS) Department is closely monitoring and working to resolve the issue. We appreciate WHEC’s attention to this important topic.”

To figure out which results are real, and which are scams, ironically, I googled it. Doing a Google image search reveals a wealth of information. That’s because in every fake ad, I was able to get a screen grab of people in the ad.  I was then easily able to find the original image and determine whether a picture in the ad was a fake. 

Here’s Deanna’s Do List for finding the fakes in your Google search.

  • Be wary when googling a product with which you’re unfamiliar. Scammers hawking products are most likely to tamper your search results.  In these cases, use a Google image search to determine whether the information is real.
  • Be wary if the review is glowing. It’s likely to be a scam.
  • Look for photoshopping around product placement.  For example, photoshopping celebrities holding the keto gummies is a common scam.  But often the picture looks off around the photoshopped product.
  • Be suspicious if a celebrity is hawking a product and the video quality is poor.  While AI is sure to improve, right now AI-altered celebrity video is usually is a bit blurry and the lips and sound don’t always match.
  • If it seems too good to be true, be wary.