Scammers Alter Phone Numbers in Google Search Results, Targeting Airline Customers

Recently, scammers made alterations to the contact information displayed in Google search results for several major airlines, leading some unsuspecting customers to dial a number where the person on the other end attempted to defraud them.

Shmuli Evers, a software designer based in Brooklyn, New York, first noticed this issue on a Sunday when his Delta flight departing from John F. Kennedy International Airport was canceled. Faced with long lines at the airport’s customer service desk, he resorted to searching Google for the airline’s contact number to reschedule his flight, as he explained in a widely-shared Twitter thread. Other Twitter users chimed in, sharing similar experiences.

Instead of connecting with a Delta representative, Evers found himself speaking to an individual with a distinct accent who abruptly disconnected the call and called him back from a different number. This person then requested a payment to secure a rescheduled flight. Evers promptly recognized this as a scam and abandoned his travel plans.

Subsequently, Evers documented that Google search results also provided incorrect phone numbers for six other airlines, including American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and Air France. These airlines did not respond to email inquiries regarding the matter. Search results for all these airlines, including Delta, have been rectified since then. However, it remains unclear who altered the contact information and how they accomplished this.

This scam involving altered phone numbers occurred amidst a backdrop of widespread airport delays and cancellations in the United States, attributed to factors like severe weather and staffing shortages.

Internet scams and cybercrimes have become increasingly prevalent and financially damaging. The FBI’s annual Internet Crime Complaint Center report revealed that victims reported an all-time high of $10.3 billion in online losses the previous year.

A spokesperson from Google stated via email that the company “does not tolerate this misleading activity” and added that their teams had already started addressing the inaccuracies, suspending the involved malicious accounts, and implementing extra safeguards to prevent further abuse. However, they declined to answer inquiries about the duration of the problem, the number of successfully impersonated airlines, or the reasons for the absence of better protective measures for major companies like airlines.

Google has encountered challenges in countering scammers who have figured out how to manipulate search results to display false contact information for businesses when users perform searches on Google Search or Maps.

These results originate from Google’s internal database for companies, known as Business Profiles. Typically, Google verifies a company’s ownership through methods like sending a postcard, making a phone call, or conducting a video chat. Last month, Google initiated a legal action against an individual and his companies, alleging that they offered verification-for-payment services to control search results for businesses, a service popular among scammers.

A spokesperson from Delta mentioned that the company was investigating the incident, stating, “Whenever we become aware of an alleged scam targeting our customers, including in this situation, we immediately conduct an investigation.” The spokesperson also advised customers to visit the Delta website to ensure they are calling the correct number.

Evers conveyed his frustration with Google’s response to his near-scam experience but expressed relief that the issue was gaining attention, stating, “I am happy that there is more awareness coming to this issue to get it resolved.”

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