Google Files Suit Against SEO Firm Accused Of Robocalling, Launches Complaint Center For Users

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After years of near inaction, Google is stepping up to take on robocallers that claim affiliation with the company in order to prey on small businesses. In addition to launching a new page for users to report call scams, Google filed suit on Wednesday against a search engine optimization firm for making robocalls.

“Our office is beseiged [sic] daily by phone calls asking to update our Google listing. The calls said we could push a number to be removed from their database, but the calls continue even after we did so. How do we get those calls to stop??”.¬†That complaint from 2013 is just one of many that come up in a¬†search for “robocalls” on the Google My Business help forum.

In its first legal move to combat robocallers claiming to work for or with the company, Google My Business Operations Manager Brad Wetherall announced in a blog post that “today we‚Äôre filing an action¬†in California against one search engine optimization company for making these robocalls and confusing our¬†users.” The name of the firm had not been released at the time of publication but will be updated here when available. Update 9/16: Google filed suit in the Norther District of California against Local Lighthouse Corp, based in Tustin, California, which promotes paid search and SEO services.¬†Search Engine Land has received a copy of the filing¬†and will provide a link when available.

The suit claims that Local Lighthouse Corp “sales agents have made and continue to make various false and misleading claims during Defendant‚Äôs telemarketing calls to confuse consumers regarding the true source or nature of Defendant‚Äôs services and the relationship between Google and Defendant” and “exploits such confusion to induce consumers to enter into contracts costing hundreds of dollars in recurring monthly bills.”

As an example, the Google¬†claims Local Lighthouse “sales agents have made statements such as: ‘We‚Äôre a Google subcontractor,’ ‘we‚Äôre working for Google,’ ‘the $100 fee [to initiate Defendant‚Äôs services] goes to Google,’ and Defendant‚Äôs customers‚Äô webpages ‘will show up multiple times on the front page and get what‚Äôs called ‚ÄėFront Page Domination.‚Äô‚ÄĚ

In tandem with filing legal action, Google also launched a new Safety Center page on Wednesday for users who receive robocalls from companies purporting to be affiliated with the search giant. The page explains steps users should take to protect themselves from further calls and offers links to a report the callers to Google, as well as the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) or FCC (Federal Communications Commission).

Typically, the calls start with a recording that¬†prompts recipients to press a button in order¬†to speak with a representative about¬†claiming or updating their¬†Google My Business Listings or to hear how they should be¬†performing better in Google search or¬†AdWords. The aim may¬†be¬†to sell local search optimization services or to get login information to¬†hijack business listings¬†or¬†spam Maps listings.¬†These types of automated calls are illegal in the United States because the¬†recipients haven’t given written consent to get sales calls from the company doing the calling.

Despite the fact that businesses have been complaining about getting bombarded with robocalls for years, and Google’s own reputation has suffered when¬†recipients believe that Google is involved with the calls, until now, the company has hung back from taking direct action, instead directing users¬†to go to the National Do Not Call Registry or¬†to file complaints with the FCC or FTC.

Perpetrators are hard to go after, Google says, because they often use untraceable phone numbers, fake company names and a global network of intermediaries to execute the calls. The graphic below from the FTC maps what happens during a typical illegal robocall.

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Source: FTC

Google may call users to verify business listings, maps details, AdWords and other products, but the company says these calls are always from live representatives and never automated, unless specifically requested by the user.¬†The best thing to do if you receive a robocall from any entity (not just Google impersonators) is to immediately hang up. Do not press any button because once you do, they’ve got your number, literally, and you’ll likely just keep getting more illegal calls. The FCC says¬†it received more than 214,000 complaints about¬†unwanted calls¬†in 2014.

Google’s actions Wednesday¬†signal that it¬†will be more active in addressing the robocalls that have been inundating local businesses.

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