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Ghost businesses: What are they, how to protect yourself

HOUSTON – When was the last time cracked open the yellow pages to find a business? The internet has changed the way we search, but KPRC 2 consumer expert Amy Davis discovered if you’re not careful, you could end up giving your business to a scammer, also known as a ghost business.

A lot of us just Google “restaurants near me” or “locksmiths near me.” But those businesses that pop up may or may not be near you. Like a ghost, these shady businesses appear to be there when they’re actually not.

“It’s more and more prevalent these days,” explained forensic investigator Colman Ryan.

“Over the years, they’ve become very obvious.”

Ryan did a Google search for “exterminators near me.” A Google listing for Terminix popped up just a couple of miles away. Most people would just call and schedule an appointment. Instead, Davis and Ryan drove to the address. They found a vacant townhome with a for sale sign out front. The realtor selling the property told Davis there has never been a Terminix at the address.

So why would a business or scammer go through all of the trouble of faking an address?

“That is the area they want to target. That’s what they’ve decided on,” Ryan said.

Free Google business listings help ghost businesses pretend to be something or somewhere they are not.

“They can just pop up and pretend to be a licensed company,” said Ryan.

In a statement, Terminix confirmed it is not affiliated with the address in the Google business listing.

“Thank you for making us aware of this third-party site, with which we are not affiliated. We are looking into the matter and working with our legal team to remove our brand from the site,” a Terminix spokesperson wrote in an email.

When we called the phone number in the Google listing, we got an odd recording and disclaimer.

“This may not be a Terminix product or service and is not a recommendation, warranty or assumed liability of any kind,” said a robotic-sounding recording.

What is clear, if you inadvertently hire a ghost business, you could be in for more than just a scare.

“You don’t know who it is,” explained Ryan. “It could be someone fresh out of prison. And this person is coming and working in your house.”

How to Protect Yourself from Ghost Businesses:

When you look for a business on Google, if you scroll down on the listing, you should be able to see a picture of what is at the business address listed. If you don’t see the business that is supposed to be there, that should raise a red flag.

Other Tell-Tale Signs of a Ghost Business:

  • Area codes that are not local or VOIP numbers
  • Although you won’t always be able to tell a voice-activated internet protocol number from a landline or cellular number, VOIP lines are often used by scammers because they are difficult to trace and they can ditch the number quickly and get a new one for not much money.
  • Businesses that say they are open 24/7.
  • If you are looking at a business that normally keeps traditional hours (like an exterminator) and the listing shows it is open 24 hours a day, that should sound off an alarm. Ghost businesses will often claim to be open 24/7 because it will push their listing up to the top if someone is Googling for a certain type of business and theirs is the only one supposedly open.

Report Fraudulent Businesses to Google

Google has a complaint form where you can report misleading information or fraudulent activity on Google maps. You can send any information you have to Support.google.com.

NOTE: This story was originally published on KSAT’s sister station’s page, Click2Houston.com.