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Insider: Google 'map jacking' is rampant, a threat to public safety

Insider: Google 'map jacking' is rampant, a threat to public safety
SEATTLE -- Like a magician breaking his code of silence and exposing his tricks, Bryan Seely of Edmonds is blowing the secret on a trick that could be called Google "map jacking."

He says scammers have been using the method to dupe Google into publishing fake listings on Google Maps, despite repeated attempts by Google to stop it.

"I've personally worked on and seen over 50,000 fake businesses in the last six years and I know there are numerous other people who do the same thing," said Seely, who knows the risks of exposing his secrets.

He had been playing a cat and mouse game with Google by using the search engine's own web publishing tools and a "lax verification system" to create fake listings for profit.

He claims he's no longer "map jacking" for profit and wants to come clean because he wants a job at Google. He is now taking a different approach, using the same techniques as a "Maptivists," creating prank listings on Google Maps and posting his exploits on Twitter.

Seely has made the White House lawn Snowden's Super Secret Hiding Place, and the Russian Embassy in London a Russian Orthodox church featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin in clown make-up in front of a rainbow flag as a protest over Putin's remarks about gay athletes at the Olympics.

"I could if I wanted to make a listing called 'Super Happy Time Land at the Yo-dong North Korean Concentration Camp' and then give it some positive reviews, put up a picture of Kim Jong-Un and have him go, 'It's super great time,' " said Seely.

He did a form of that in just a few key strokes on his laptop.

But on a more serious note, he showed the Problems Solvers how he could create child care, locksmith, and carpet cleaner listings that are totally bogus. The listing would show up on anyone's computer if they were searching in those categories.

"I'm trying to draw attention to the fact that people in this country are calling businesses that are not really there," Seely said.

He says he's never knowingly worked for a criminal, but says it's possible people creating fake listings are doing so for criminal purposes.

He claims he could make 1,000 listings a week and people would pay him between $10 to $50 per listing. He released several emails to the Problem Solvers indicating Google was told of exploits and they were investigating them as spam.

"There is a back door and Google made it themselves," he said. "They just didn't realize that they left that open."

Internet security specialist Parker Thompson of Leviathan Security in Seattle reviewed the methods Seely uses at the request of the Problem Solvers. He found the method lets users move businesses around to inaccurate locations very easily.

"It's definitely not a hack, it's not a vulnerability, it's just a flaw in how the logic is set up," Thompson said.

He says it's a flaw that can be fixed fairly quickly if Google wants to.

"Google is going to end up making a decision on this, if it's in their monetary interests to do so," Thompson said.

Google is all about populating its maps with as much useful data as possible. That's why it allows business and regular people to update their map listings, but it's done through a verification process that can take several days.

Seely demonstrated he can obtain a verification on a false listing in a matter of minutes.

"Google's idea is that they can only keep their maps current if they let people contribute content to that process," said Mike Blumenthal, editor of Blumenthals.com, a tech blog focusing on web search engines.

He believes Google's reliance on computer algorithms to weed out bogus listing may be the issue.

"Last year there's a general consensus among professionals that they let their guard down on the matter or perhaps just opened up access," Blumenthal said. "They just thought an algorithm or something would handle it."

The Problem Solvers asked Google to react to Seely's method. We even forwarded an email written by Seely explaining how the method works.

In a statement, Google spokeswoman Gina Scigliano said, "It was brought to our attention that an individual was creating fake business listings in Google Maps. Although these listings do not appear prominently on the map, we take problems like spam very seriously, and appreciate when the community flags issues so we can quickly resolve them."

Seely says he will believe the fixes when he sees them, and so far he hasn't seen any fixes.

"I have control over anything I want to do on Google and there's nothing they can do at this point," he said.
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