'Something scuzzy': Marketplace investigation uncovers fake locksmith listings and reviews on Google
Marketplace uncovers more than 80 Toronto area listings on Google Maps with bogus information
If you're locked out of your house with nowhere to turn, chances are you're going to have to call a locksmith. But picking a locksmith may prove trickier than picking a lock itself, especially if your search begins online.
A Marketplace investigation into the locksmith industry uncovered a sprawling network of fake locations and fake five-star reviews cluttering local Google Maps in the Greater Toronto Area.
In response, Google is now cracking down on fake locksmith locations and promising to audit all listings across the country, acknowledging that "there's ongoing work to do and we're committed to doing better."
It comes too late for Tom Gehrels, who experienced the problem firsthand last summer.
"I looked on Google Maps because I wanted to use somebody local that had a good reputation," he said.
Gehrels and his wife ended up choosing Birchmount Locksmith in Scarborough, Ont., based on its price, five-star Google reviews and its location — just down the road from their home.
"They quoted us a price of $30 for the service and $45 and up for the actual replacement of the lock," said Gehrels.
When the locksmith showed up, however, Gehrels said, the cost was more than triple what was initially quoted. After negotiating a discount, the bill came to $242.95.
"I just object to the fact that somebody charges you $185 for a $45 lock that takes 20 minutes to install," he said. "I just think that's outrageous."
- Watch Marketplace's full investigation, Locksmith Ripoffs, at 8 p.m. on Friday on CBC-TV, Gem or YouTube.
His anger turned to confusion when he discovered the locksmith that completed the work wasn't really from Birchmount Locksmith, the local company his wife had called.
His receipt bore the name of a different company: Locksmith Experts, with a head office in Concord, Ont., about 40 kilometers north of Toronto.
Soon after he lodged his complaints online on both of their Google Map listings, Gehrels met with the Marketplace team to head to the physical location of Birchmount Locksmith. But the address listed on Google Maps was home to just an empty lot.
"There's nothing here. Clearly there's something scuzzy going on; I don't know what it is, but yeah.... It's worrisome," said Gehrels.
Marketplace ultimately discovered that Locksmith Experts Corp. has previously responded to service calls placed with several fake Google locations, including Birchmount Locksmith, Brampton Locksmith, Rouge Locksmith, and Port Credit Locksmith.
The website of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) lists Locksmith Experts with an F rating and 11 complaints. It warns of a pattern of unresolved complaints against the company.
On Yelp, the company has nine negative reviews; and Marketplace producers spoke with several dissatisfied customers who complained of unexpectedly high bills and, at times, shoddy workmanship.
Locksmith Experts's Gabriel Gur admits they have had some unhappy customers but said they are in the minority. "The vast majority of our clients are happy with our services as demonstrated by our 4.6 rating and overall positive reviews on Google," he told Marketplace in an email.
In regards to those fake listings, Gur said his company didn't create them, adding "we do however accept subcontracted service requests from a number of other locksmiths for whom we are not responsible."
More than 80 fake locations in GTA alone
Marketplace's investigation shows that in the Greater Toronto Area, fake locksmith locations are flooding the market on Google Maps, so that when people search for a locksmith, it looks like there's one nearby.
After weeks of research, more than 80 locksmith locations in the Greater Toronto area were uncovered as fake. At those addresses, Marketplace found vacant lots, pharmacies, retail stores, shopping malls and even a country club.
Watch | Marketplace travelled to some of the addresses listed by locksmith companies on Google Maps:
While turning to Google makes searching for a neighbourhood locksmith seem easier than ever, Marketplace's attempts to link these seemingly independent businesses were mostly analog.
Marketplace called up dozens of locksmiths in the GTA that we found were not actually at the address listed and were using what appeared to be fake five-star reviews, including Certified Locksmith Etobicoke, Pape Locksmith and East York Locksmith Experts.
All of the fake locations answered the phone the same way: "Service, how can I help you?" We were also given the same price quote by almost every one: $29 for the service call, and $45 and up for the rest.
21 of the fake locations we called told us they were linked with FC Locksmith. FC Locksmith claims to be "one of the best locksmith companies in Toronto", and their website mentions branches all over Toronto, the GTA and Southern Ontario, as well as in Ottawa and Calgary.
However, FC Locksmith does not appear to use its company name in Google Maps location listings.
One call-centre employee at the number associated with the result for "Oshawa Certified Locksmith" told us that FC Locksmith is "quite big" and "has a lot of technicians serving all of GTA," with a call centre based in Toronto.
Tracking down the fake reviews
FC Locksmith is well-rated on Google Maps, with dozens of five-star reviews. But with some digging, it appears most of them are fake.
A five-star Google review by a Denver Cothron reads: "I got locked out of my car the other day, so I called in for 24-hour locksmith services. They responded right away and solved the problem."
The problem is that the man smiling in the reviewer's profile picture is actually Toronto lawyer Ian Roland.
"The picture's me, but nothing else is — and I have no idea how they got it," said Roland.
Marketplace producers tracked Roland down by doing a reverse image search, which traced the photo linked to the fake review back to his law firm's corporate website.
"I'm a lawyer; it's an appropriation of my image," he said. "I may have to pursue it."
Some of the other images attached to the fake Google reviews are photos of real-life professors, doctors and real estate agents — but with different names. A five-star review by someone named Dalton Fincher is actually an image of U.S. astronaut Clayton Anderson on the space shuttle Discovery.
"It's outrageous; they shouldn't be doing this," said Roland.
Marketplace shared the fake listings with the company and asked for an on-camera interview with FC Locksmith's owners, Eran Gurvich and Ilay Avnin. They declined and referred Marketplace to their lawyer, Jonathan Weingarten, who said in a statement, that his client "denies any allegations of fake reviews or locations."
"It is well known to the public that fake reviews may be easily posted by any person or entity from any cell phone or computer, including by competitors in any named profession in order to damage a business reputation," he said.
"FC Locksmith, with very little knowledge about advertising methods, has hired external expert companies to promote its business through online websites and will immediately check into any allegations of fake locations advertised without its knowledge and consent, to remedy this matter."
'They trust Google'
The widespread use of fake locations by some locksmith companies came as no surprise to Mike Blumenthal, a U.S. search engine consultant and Google Maps local search expert.
"It's profitable and there's no real enforcement," he said.
Blumenthal said fraudulent listings have been an ongoing issue for Google, particularly when it comes to local searches. The problem is more prevalent in some home services, such as locksmiths, appliance repair and garage door repairs, he said, suggesting as many as 85 per cent of local Google home services listings could be fake.
"[People] call the locksmith on Google because they trust Google," said Blumenthal. "Legitimate businesses can't compete because a business that has collective resources to spam Google pushes them out."
Fake listings erode consumer trust in how to find a good local business — and in the online marketplace generally, Blumenthal said. And when things go wrong, it can make it hard for consumers to find those accountable.
Whoever is posting fake reviews may be in violation of Canada's Competition Act, the federal law that governs most business conduct in this country. The Competition Bureau tells Marketplace that "anyone who produces, sells or distributes fake endorsements or reviews could be liable under the [Competition] Act."
Fake reviews, along with fake locations, are also a violation of Google's guidelines, which lay out rules against misleading consumers by providing "inaccurate" or "false" information about a business, service or its products. Companies with a Google profile are required to have one page for its central office or location and a designated service area; listing a virtual office is not allowed, unless it's staffed during office hours.
If a business uses a location it doesn't own or lease, it could result in the suspension or removal of its Google account.
Blumenthal questioned whether businesses that are willing to cheat on their listings and reviews are also willing "to cheat at who they send out to repair."
"They could be sending people into your home that are not qualified to be there or shouldn't be there because of background issues," he said.
And with so much at stake, is Google doing enough to enforce their own rules?
Google addressed the issue in a 2019 blog post entitled "How we fight fake business profiles on Google Maps."
"Local business scammers have been a thorn in the internet's side for over a decade," wrote Ethan Russell, the product director for Google Maps.
"We're continually working on new and better ways to fight these scams using a variety of ever-evolving manual and automated systems."
Marketplace shared its findings outlining the fake locksmith locations and reviews found in the Greater Toronto Area with Google in late December.
In a statement, Google Canada said "more than 99 per cent of the businesses people find on Google Maps are legitimate and we're working hard to detect and remove the small number of fraudulent listings that have been posted by bad actors."
In response to the Marketplace investigation, the company further said it will now audit all locksmith locations across Canada to remove any fraudulent listings. Google also committed to investigating how these listings were added to the map in the first place.
All of the fake locations uncovered in our investigation have since been removed.
'You've gotta act like adults'
From the beginning, Blumenthal has maintained that Google could be doing more to be proactive in policing its listings.
"They need to not just assume that the algorithm is going to solve the problem, and it has to be a persistent, long-term investment in people to vet listings to make sure that they're legitimate," he said.
Blumenthal is also calling on governments in both Canada and the U.S. to step in and enforce rules that will keep fake listings and reviews offline for good.
"The government needs to hold Google accountable. I think the time is long past for Google to have somebody who says to them, 'You've gotta act like adults.'"
- An earlier version of this story said Tom Gehrels was cited a price after the locksmith work was completed. In fact, the price was negotiated before the work began.Jan 10, 2020 12:34 PM ET