Google agrees to government request to pull ads linking to fake travel sites

Google yesterday agreed to a request from the Government of Canada and changed the results that appear when travellers coming to Canada search for the ArriveCan app — an effort to protect travellers from paying unnecessary fees to phoney websites.

Search results for ArriveCan app included 'scam' sites paying Google for ads

Travellers arrive at Terminal 3 at Pearson Airport in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Google yesterday agreed to a request from the Government of Canada and changed the results that appear when travellers coming to Canada search for the ArriveCan app — an effort to protect travellers from paying unnecessary fees to phoney websites.

ArriveCan is the app the government uses to record international visits for the purposes of tracking COVID-19. Both Canadian residents and foreign visitors are required to have it.

But scammers have taken advantage of that requirement by seeking to divert travellers onto fake ArriveCan websites and charging them for the service.

Until yesterday, Google was inadvertently helping one of those websites entice traffic by selling it advertising space at the top of search engine results for "ArriveCan."

For example, a traveller planning to fly from Heathrow to Toronto who searched for the ArriveCan app on Google's U.K. site would see at the top of the page a listing entitled "Travel Declaration Canada - Fast and Easy Application" — leading to the URL arrivecan-online.com.

A small box marked the listing as an ad but it was otherwise very similar to other search results. The listing frequently appeared above the real Government of Canada website, entitled "Use ArriveCan to enter Canada," which leads to canada.ca > coronavirus-disease-covid-19.

Payments went to Spain, not Canada

A traveller who entered the former site — the one not operated by the Government of Canada — would go through a series of pages asking for personal and travel information. That traveller might or might not notice the small-print disclaimer acknowledging the page "is owned and operated by a private travel agency which is not affiliated, enforced or sponsored by the Canadian Government or governmental agencies."

To complete the form, an applicant is required to pay US$65. The payment goes to a company called Elvisa Online Travel located in the city of Vic in Spain's Catalonia region.

The small print on the page says the payment is for "assistance services to individuals in completing and submitting an ArriveCAN form with their contact details and health information as required by the Government to visit the country. Our services are offered for a private fee. You can also make your health declaration on your own, directly on the Government's website here, but without our professional review and expert help."

Andre Gagnon of the Public Health Agency of Canada said that the site was providing no useful service.

"These fraudulent sites have no association with ArriveCAN, so there is no data being received from them," he said.

App gets heavy traffic

The real ArriveCan app can be downloaded for free, either from the Apple app store or the Google Play store. It's among the most-downloaded apps in Canada, with well over 100,000 reviews posted on the two download sites. The app is designed to be simple enough for travellers to complete without assistance and both Google and Apple customers give it generally high marks.

The Government of Canada has warned ArriveCan users to beware of outside parties charging fees since the launch of the app earlier this year, warning that "if the ArriveCAN app or web page prompts you for payment, it is fraudulent."

But scammers have still been able to make money by using Google to steer people onto their pages.

On Monday, a week after CBC News initially inquired about the scam, Gagnon told CBC News that "the Government of Canada is aware and is in communication with Google about this issue."

Google pulled down the ad that evening.

"We prohibit ads that mislead users about the advertiser's affiliation with the government or services offered. When we find ads that violate our policies, we take immediate action and in this case have removed the ads from running on our platforms," a Google Canada spokesperson told CBC News, saying the specific violation was of Google's government services policy.

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