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Scam call centers are rising on the Internet. Here’s how to avoid them

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

Scam call centers are having a moment on the internet, bizarrely appearing in the top search results for many of your consumer questions. Here’s what you need to know about spotting and avoiding these World Wide Web predators.

It happened again. Another consumer contacted me after being tricked into calling a scam customer service center. This one was pretending to be Etsy phone support, a company with no such feature. But Kim H. didn’t know that, so she googled “Etsy phone support” and called the number in the top search result.  

She was soon chatting with a friendly man who seemed eager to fix her Etsy problem. That is until she questioned his strange instructions, which included downloading a “customer support app” onto her computer. Kim told him she didn’t want to add any third-party software to her device, but he insisted it was required to get Etsy support. She refused, and the agent’s demeanor abruptly changed. He gave her an ultimatum: Do it, or he wouldn’t help her. 

When she hesitated and wondered aloud if there was someone else she could talk to, he claimed to be working directly with Etsy’s CEO. Unconvinced, Kim forcefully asked to speak to his supervisor. He then cursed at her and hung up. 

Is Google promoting a scammer?

Stunned but determined to find someone at Etsy who could address the problematic seller, Kim called the number again. This time, she had two complaints, one about the merchant and one about the unbelievably rude Etsy employee. But the same unprofessional man from the previous call answered the phone.

Sure that she didn’t want the type of help this guy had to offer, Kim hung up. Now feeling quite disturbed by the entire experience, she emailed Etsy customer support. That’s when an actual employee informed her that the number she had used to reach the unpleasant fellow wasn’t affiliated with Etsy. In fact, he confirmed that Etsy doesn’t have phone-based customer support.

It was now clear to Kim that she had just dodged a scammer and she wanted to warn other Etsy customers. That’s when she contacted Consumer Rescue

Michelle, I’m sorry to say Etsy wasn’t too concerned about this and, to my knowledge, the fake number is still on Google.  I recently read your article on The Points Guy about fake airline call centers, and it made me wonder. What can be done about Google’s role in promoting these scammers?

What about other companies that are aware of the scammers but allow this fraud to continue? This is shocking. What’s going on?

Kim H (A concerned consumer who doesn’t want scammers to know her last name)

Unfortunately, I didn’t share Kim’s shock about the fake business numbers showing up in the search results. From my files, I knew this was a growing problem. I had also been wondering, “What’s going on?”

The plague of scam call centers 

Scam call centers have infiltrated the Internet search results like a plague in the past few months. It’s hard to dodge them. The rise of these sinister imposters posing as the official customer service for all of your favorite companies is alarming. As a consumer advocate, the most disturbing part of this troubling situation is the immense scale of the recent success of these scam rings.  

Google reigns supreme in online searches, dictating what information you are exposed to on the Internet. A staggering 90 percent of consumer searches are funneled through the Google search engine, and consumers have come to depend on and trust those search results. 

Scammers know this and are constantly looking for ways to trick Google into increasing their visibility where most consumers are looking for information. 

Unfortunately, as you’ll soon see, the bad guys have figured out how to manipulate the search engine, by invading the websites of government organizations, police departments and other reputable companies.

This is terrible news for consumers who rely on the Internet to provide quick and reliable answers to their questions. 

Consumer alert: Scam call centers suddenly everywhere 

In the past year, I’ve observed a steady increase in requests for help from victims of scam call centers. Sometimes, the con artists have cold-called the consumer. (See: eBay gift card scams running wild). However, the scheme has increasingly involved victims who called the scammers directly after finding what they thought was an official phone number for a company via a Google search.

These consumers all believed they were talking to a legitimate company’s customer support. As a result they felt comfortable sharing personal information like their credit card numbers and reservation and account details. But instead of a helpful employee of a trusted business, they were actually speaking to an imposter. Unlike Kim, the vast majority of these people didn’t realize there was a scammer on the other end of the phone — until it was too late. 

What has become more clear with each complaint is that these call centers cover the gamut of consumer-facing businesses. The scammers represent themselves as customer service for airlines, hotel reservations, booking agents, technical support for various software, popular streaming entertainment, tax support and more. 

Any company you patronize likely has a corresponding scam center you can call for “your convenience.” 

As businesses increasingly relegate customer support to chat-based artificial intelligence, consumers often find it impossible to reach a real person to help solve their issues.

Enter the scam customer support center ready to happily fill that void, taking your call and providing personalized “help” – which, of course, isn’t helpful at all. If you call one of the fake helplines you’ll soon have a whole new set of problems, which can include theft of your money and identity – and even ongoing harassment from these scammers.  

These mostly off-shore warehouses, filled with “agents” whose only goal is to trick consumers, aren’t new. But their tremendous rise in visibility across the Internet is. 

What’s going on in the Google search results?

Historically, predatory call centers need to buy ad space to appear at the top of the search results for their chosen niche. However, this isn’t an optimal placement for the scammers since these results are always clearly labeled as advertisements. Most consumers are able to easily identify them as a paid-for placement – and keep scrolling. The first organic (non-advertisement) result is one that searchers can typically rely on to be accurate.

Many of the complaints I’ve fielded involve a consumer who isn’t internet savvy and neglected to look closely at the search results. In their eagerness to reach a real person to fix their problem, they glossed over the “advertisement” designation and ended up dialing a number in a “sponsored result.”

Consumers who call one of these centers will invariably end up in one of two scenarios:

  • At best, they reach a quasi-scam operation which will provide some actual assistance but charge a hefty fee to do it. These are usually third or fourth tier booking agents whose marketing tactics are based on buying ads and pretending to be endorsed by official companies.
  • At worst, the bad actor on the other end of the line only has one intention: to steal as much of the consumer’s money and personal details as possible. 

But something has changed in the past three months. The scam call centers are no longer paying to appear at the top of the Google search results. And yet, there they are – with no label and no warning to consumers about their actual identity.

Why is Google elevating these scammers in the search results?

While reviewing another complaint from a consumer who insisted that she didn’t click an ad, but still reached scammers instead of American Airlines, I did a little digging. That’s when I discovered a disturbing trend.

I began typing common consumer questions into the Google search field. I immediately noticed something very unusual. The New York City Department of Finance was dominating the search results for nearly any consumer question that I could ask. This was strange since that organization has no history of helping consumers with travel or product-related problems.

Here’s just a sampling of some of my questions and the answers being promoted that day.

Search results for common complaints we receive

How can I change my Spirit Airlines flight? At the top of the search results, the New York Department of Finance offered a “helpful” article. The alleged phone number for Spirit Airlines was not one I had ever associated with the carrier. My suspicion was growing.

scam call center appears in a featured snippet in the search results for Spirit Airlines refund.
A strange number published by the New York City Department of Finance for Spirit Airlines and promoted by Google.

How to get a refund from Frontier Airlines? Although Frontier Airlines is well known to have eliminated their live customer support, the NYC Department of Finance was promoting a “Quick Assist” number for the carrier. There, in a featured snippet at the very top of the search results and in the following position as well, was the NYC Department of Finance. Again, the number on display was deceptive and only meant to trick consumers.

scammers reaching the top of the Google search results without placing ads.
This featured snippet contained deceptive information meant to trick consumers into calling scammers.

How to get a refund from Expedia? No worries, the NYC Department of Finance could help you with that as well, according to the top search results. Note: A second competing scam call center had earned its own place in the top search results here.

Scam call centers pretending to be Expedia support.
These odd results for Expedia from the NYC Department of Finance also earned a featured snippet in the Google search results.

Note: Google describes featured snippets as the “zero” position in the search results. It is a coveted spot for publishers to appear because it is at the very top of the search and is presumably a show of trust by Google that the information is reliable.

An endless array of spam results for any consumer questions

On and on it went. For every question I asked the search engine, the NYC Department of Finance (and/or a competing scam call center) appeared as the authoritative answer. Each result displayed deceptive phone numbers with silly emojis and unusual fonts.

But when I clicked on those results, I felt like I was stepping back into a different era of the Internet. It was a time when scammers could easily trick search engines simply by repeatedly stuffing a page full of exactly the same words. 

However, Google stopped promoting that type of spammy junk over a decade ago. In modern times, the top results are authoritative organizations with trusted authors in the bylines of those articles. 

That is, until now. 

What kind of “article” is this?

As I began reading through the library of “articles” published by the NYC Department of Finance, it was immediately apparent that scammers had taken over an unmoderated forum. Every minute, a new spam post appeared on the site.

Presumably, because the “publisher” was a government organization, these spam pieces quickly appeared at the top of the search results for whatever topic the title indicated. 

A scammers article which is pretending to provide American
Scammers pretending to provide American Airlines live support. This article appeared at the top of the search results for “How to change my American Airlines flight?” That number is a scam call center.

Each post in that forum had just one purpose: to trick the search engines into displaying those phone numbers to people looking for help. Dialing those numbers would deliver a consumer right into the scammer’s hands.

Calling the scam call centers

If you’re a regular reader of my column then you know I frequently spend time speaking to scammers so you can spot and avoid them. 

On this day, I spent several hours scrolling through the NYC Department of Finance’s forum and calling many of the numbers. 

The same scenario played over and over. The toll-free number would ring, but it sounded like it was connecting to a distant land. Every time, the person answering would not identify any specific company until he or she had more information from me. It was clear that they had various scripts in front of them which would allow for them to switch up the call based on the information the victim provided. 

Here’s how a call typically went. The number I dialed to reach this scammer was promoted as United Airlines support.

Scammer: Hello, support. I am here to help you.

Michelle: What kind of support?

S: With your problem. Do you need to cancel your reservation or change it? I need your reservation number.

M: Do you work for the airline?

S: Yes. Please give me your reservation number and I will help you.

M: Which airline? 

S: Uh, miss, I’m trying to help you, but you need to give me your reservation number.

M: But I’m trying to determine if you work for an airline or if this is…uh, something else. 

S: I handle problems for many airlines, miss. The airlines hire us to do the work. I am fully qualified.

M: Ok, I think I’ve heard enough. Have a nice day.

S: Miss? I can help!

Note: A scammer can do lots of things with your reservation number — including canceling or changing your plans for you. Never give that information to a stranger who won’t even identify who you’ve called.

Surprise! The scammer called me back

After I hung up, on more than one occasion, the scammer would immediately return my call. This one called me back from his personal cell phone number which wasn’t U.S.-based.

S: Hello, Miss, you just asked for my help and when I was trying to help you, you didn’t trust me. Let me help you. 

M: No, I don’t need your help. Thanks anyway. This seems like this might be just a scam. Why did you call me back?

S: Because I want to help you. 

M: I don’t think so. I’m going to call the airline directly. Thanks anyway.

S: Miss, F*** you!!! I didn’t want to help you, b****!

One particularly unpleasant fellow answering a number claiming to be Netflix, cursed at me when I wouldn’t give him my account number.  This guy was so mad when I questioned his Netflix employment status that he threatened that he could prove it to me by removing my Netflix account  “from the face of the earth!”

This crook shouted some vulgar profanities at me too and hung up – only to call me back a few minutes later. He warned that he was giving me just one more chance before obliterating my Netflix account. I declined and he yelled some unintelligible threats and then hung up on me again.

Good news: The scammer didn’t “obliterate” my Netflix account

Spoiler alert: Not surprisingly, my Netflix account was unharmed and not “removed from the earth” by this predator. 

But I thought about all the people who might be at the receiving end of this type of scammer’s barrage of threats and insults. I realized how easily his tactics might convince someone like my grandmother to bend to his instructions. 

I had seen and heard enough. 

My next call was to the actual NYC Department of Finance to try to get this dangerous forum removed from the internet. It was only three days old and yet it had nearly 25,000 urls indexed by Google already. Each one of those “articles” put consumers at risk. 

Is the NYC Department of Finance really hosting this scam forum?

When I went to the main page of the NYC Department of Finance, it was impossible to find this forum. The only way to land on it was via the Google search results.

Clearly, this message board was meant to be something other than a gathering place for people to discuss common interests. There were no actual forum members and no engagement on any post. It was unmoderated, and I suspected that the NYC government was likely unaware of its existence. It was simply a platform for scammers to promote their call centers in the search results.

NYC Department of Finance "support forum" taken over by scam call centers.
This “support forum” has only one purpose: to trick Google and scam consumers.

I sent a message over to the NYC Department of Finance and my suspicions were soon confirmed. 

Hi Ryan,

….These scammers are using A.I. to populate that forum with the “answer” to almost any consumer question posed to Google. The answers all direct the consumer to a third-party where their information including credit card information will be stolen. Many are posing as official airline sites and other businesses.   Because the URL appears to be a government website, Google has elevated these threads in the search results. Consumers are being tricked into calling the numbers and are handing over personal information believing they’re speaking to official businesses. 

Those posts are increasing by the minute because they’re generated by A.I. … Some of them have links to porn and escort sites hidden behind author “bylines.”  

On one particularly concerning page, there is a link for readers to enter all their personal information (including their social security number) to sign up for notification about their tax obligations. 

Can you confirm whether or not this unmoderated “forum” is associated with the NYC Department of Finance? 

It is a very dangerous place for consumers to visit if they’re looking for legitimate information. And if it is hosted by NYC DoF, it should be shut down. Thank you for your help!

Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer advocate

Poof! These scammers are deleted

To the credit of the NYC Department of Finance, that forum was obliterated about 10 minutes after my email. Although the imprint of that spam remained in the search results for several days, the message board was shut down and the scammers were prevented from posting further.

Hi Michelle, 

On background, our team quickly disabled this forum upon learning of its status. From our initial review, it appears a bot or other bad actor activated the unused web forum feature of our system and made multiple spam postings. We are currently investigating the cause and assessing next steps to prevent this from happening again.

Ryan Lavis
Director of Public Information | NYC Department of Finance

That was great news, except… as soon as this forum went down, within hours the scam operation just moved its content to another government forum.

Actually, the scammers moved to multiple other government forums. 

More scam call centers invading unused and unmoderated government forums 

Imagine my surprise when I repeated the process of asking the search engine various consumer questions and my own local county government began appearing in the top results. 

Over and over, the top answers to my questions were scam call centers being provided by my county’s official website.

As with the NYC Department of Finance, my county government was also unaware that they even had a forum. I shared screenshots that showed not only were they hosting a forum but that scammers had hijacked it, – and that it was being promoted in the search results. It, with its thousands of spam articles, was also taken down immediately.

Hi Michelle,

The County has been made aware of this cyber-security issue and has immediately addressed it. **** County prioritizes the safety and well-being of all residents and its employees, this includes safeguarding our cybersecurity.”

(Redacted for privacy reasons)

An army of scam call centers creating forums on government sites

A very frequent question our team receives is how to get unbanned from Facebook. Because of a popular article I wrote nearly five years ago now, I’ve received thousands of request for help from distraught former Facebook users since then. They all want the same thing: help reaching live customer support at Facebook. But that is a service that Facebook absolutely does not provide.

However, Prince George’s City Council was promoting a toll-free number that promised fast assistance with a Facebook problem. This “article” was appearing at the top of the search results for “How can I reach Facebook customer support?” The actual answer is “you can’t.”

An A.I. generated "article" created by scammers and published on the Prince George's Council site.
Facebook doesn’t have toll-free customer support, but scammers do.

When I contacted the communications department of Prince George’s City Council, they too were unaware that scammers had created a forum and were filling it with spam. Soon that forum and its thousands of indexed URLs went down. 

But more reappeared hours later via other government sites.

Begrudgingly, I realized I was in a losing battle. There was no possible way for me to get all this junk off the Internet. And worse, now my phone was ringing again and again with scammers hoping I was in need of their assistance. Others suspected that I wasn’t really needing help and started to call me just to threaten and curse at me.

My next stop: Google. I wanted to find out what their team could make of this dangerous consumer threat flooding the search results. 

Asking Google to have a look at this phenomenon

I reached out to Google with my disturbing pile of screenshots and my communications with various governments.

…The cases I’ve been receiving from consumers are from people who got tricked into calling those numbers. Some believed they were speaking to an official airline, so they felt comfortable giving their personal information to the “agents.” I’ve written about this before, but it’s always involved fake call centers that have paid to advertise above the regular search results. In those cases, the consumer missed the “advertisement” label.

But this is a new phenomenon. These aren’t ads. These are scammers rising to the top of the SERPs organically with what looks like A.I.-created, gibberish directing searchers to their fake call centers. 

The URLs from NYC Department of Finance are showing up in Featured Snippets and  “People also ask” boxes and the top results in the SERPs. Right now that forum has over 10,000 URLs (created over the course of just 5 days) covering all sorts of consumer-related topics (mostly travel-related, but also involving taxes and health-related products). Each URL is written like a spammy article with the same paragraph and same phone numbers repeated again and again with emojis and other characters to, I suppose, prevent a bot from noticing the repetitive nature of what’s on the page. The phone numbers are being presented as official numbers of every major airline, booking agents like Expedia, tax businesses like Intuit, and others. In response to nearly every travel-related query I made yesterday, the same three or four spam sites were showing up at the top of the results and in “People also ask” boxes. 

What does Google make of this?

Michelle to Google

Then I had a long conversation on the phone with a Google spokesperson who said that their team was taking this very seriously. Their search team would be having a close look.

But in just several hours, the government-sponsored forums had multiplied – all populated with fake information aimed at tricking consumers into calling off-shore “help” centers. When I checked local results across the country using a VPN, it was clear the scammers were targeting government and even police websites.

Now the Orange County Sheriff’s office was offering a phone number for consumer requests for Facebook live support. Something I’m sure people often think to call the police about (insert sarcasm). Also the results showed that the scammers had successfully moved from the NYC Department of Finance to a more generalized forum at NYC (dot) Gov.

Fake customer service numbers for Facebook appear in the search results, government and police organizations are clearly being infiltrated by scammers.
Under a legitimate article by Business Insider are the scam call centers being promoted via the NYC (dot) Gov forum and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office website.

Google’s official statement

A few days after my conversation with Google’s spokesperson, their team provided me with a statement and also assured me that the company is aggressively fighting spam and scammers who attempt to trick the search engine into promoting inaccurate and misleading information.

Hi Michelle,

Our advanced spam-fighting systems help keep Google Search 99% spam free, despite ever-evolving tactics from spammers. We have clear spam policies against deceptive tactics and when we find behavior that violates our policies, we take action. We’ll continue to investigate and take action where there are violations of our policies.  

Google Spokesperson

I wish I could say that all of the scam call centers disappeared from the top of the search results after the Google team got on the case. Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened. In fact, as I continue to investigate this consumer threat, I can see that the problem has increased since I first began investigating it over a month ago.

Today, there are many official looking forums appearing high in the search results for popular consumer queries. The “agents” behind those numbers are just sitting there waiting for their victim’s call.  The executive spokesperson at Google that I spoke to, told me this is an ongoing battle but their team is highly successful in detecting and removing dangerous spam. 

Unfortunately, not all of the official government offices I contacted responded quickly or at all. Some of the offices I called or emailed simply told me that they do not host a forum and left it at that – exactly what the scammers would hope for. As a result, those forums are growing larger and larger filled with thousands of “articles” containing misleading and inaccurate information that is then being promoted by the search engine.  

This battle is far from over and appears to be getting worse for consumers hoping to find reliable information on the internet. 

How to avoid falling victim to a scam call center 

Although Google has assured me that they are aggressively fighting these scammers, as the spokesperson pointed out, the bad actors are always evolving their tactics. But right now, there seems to be something going awfully wrong in the search results. So that means consumers must be super vigilant in order to steer clear of the scam call centers.

Do not assume a number is valid because you see it in a search result

When you ask any search engine a question, the results will usually have a summary. Often, a scam result will show a phone number repeated many times in a row with the name of a company. Repetitive numbers in multiple fonts and colors are a sign that the result is likely a scam call center. Official companies don’t spam their number over and over with emojis and different font sizes. Scammers do this to catch your attention and draw your eye to their results. 

This is an example of a scam result at the top of Google for Expedia refund help:

NOT EXPEDIA SUPPORT, SPAM, Scam Call Center behind that number
Consumer beware: An example of fake customer support for Expedia as it appears at the top of the search results.

Beware of anonymous forum advice 

Forums can be a great way to chat with other people about similar interests and problems, but you should never assume advice from strangers is accurate. Scammers love to visit web forums and provide their “guidance.” In fact, many predators pose as forum members and promote their call centers there. Always be careful if you’re searching for a phone number for a company and the information that appears in the search result is from a message board like Reddit or Quora. Remember, no one in any of those forums has been vetted and you really have no idea who is behind each post.

Here’s an example of a scammer floating around Quora posting his fake customer support number.

Scammers post fake customer support on Quora.
Do not call customer support numbers you see on Quora or Reddit. This is where scammers often congregate to share numbers you can call so they can victimize you.

Listen carefully to the way the “agent” answers the phone

Many of the scam call centers have their workers fielding incoming calls from various numbers they’ve sprinkled around the internet. The people manning the fake centers I called all answered the phone in a very generic way “Airline reservations” or “computer support.” Some just answered “How can I help you with your problem?” 

That is not how an official customer service agent from any company answers the phone. So listen to those words at the beginning of your call. If the person doesn’t clearly identify the company, you can be sure you’re not speaking to an official agent of the business you’re trying to reach.

Hang up. 

Listen to how the phone connects

Another clue that you’re reaching scammers is the sound of the phone connection. A domestic call has a specific sound as it rings and connects. Even though scam call center numbers look like they’re domestic toll-free numbers, the sound of the connection is very different in most cases. It may ring one or two times regularly before there is a distinct change in the ringer before the scammer answers the phone. Don’t overlook that unusual alteration.

Be cautious about a website providing information about unrelated topics

Before accepting that a number in the search results is actually the company you’re trying to call, look at the URL. If the URL has nothing to do with the company you’re researching, keep scrolling – even if it appears to be a government website. 

Ask Consumer Rescue for guidance

If you’re having a problem and need a phone number or email contact for any company, you can reach out to Consumer Rescue. Over the years we have accumulated a giant database of consumer-facing executive contacts for nearly any business you patronize. These are real people who we know have a history of helping consumers. Tell us the name of the company and we’ll tell you who to contact – no scam call centers involved. Guaranteed! The best part? It’s always free of charge to consumers.    (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

This is the Help Button from Consumer Rescue. Consumers can ask for free help from our team through that button. Get consumer Help.
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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.