The Federal Trade Commission has filed a complaint against a Florida-based telemarketing operation that is charged with deceiving small business owners by falsely representing an affiliation with/authorization by Google, making threats to remove businesses from search results and false promising specific search results.
According to the FTC, Defendants operate a telemarketing scam in which they target small business owners with false threats of removal from Google’s search engine and false promises of unique keywords in order to convince them to purchase a Google “claiming and verification” service.
Defendants allegedly charge $300-$700 for the claiming and verification service. As set forth in the Complaint, Defendants also target each paying consumer with an upsell that falsely promises that the consumer’s business will receive first-page placement in Google search results. Defendants allegedly charge a flat fee of $949.99 and an additional monthly recurring charge of $169.99 or $99.99 for these search engine optimization services.
The Complaint also charges Defendants with writing themselves $100 checks from at least 250 consumers’ bank accounts without those consumers’ knowledge or authorization.
The FTC alleges that Defendants’ initial sales pitch relates to Google’s “Google My Business” service. Google My Business allows business owners to manage their business listings, including updating their business information (such as hours of operation and address), adding photographs, and responding to reviews.
A business owner gains control of his or her Google My Business listing by either claiming a preexisting listing or creating a new listing and then verifying that he or she is authorized to manage the business. The owner usually verifies his or her authority to manage the business by providing a verification code that Google mails to the business address. Google does not charge business owners for claiming and verifying their business listings, and the process does not involve identifying or claiming “keywords.” Claiming and verifying a business with Google does not guarantee first-page placement in search results.
Since November 2016, the Commission alleges, Defendants have placed threatening robocalls to small business owners and other consumers, in an effort to induce them to “press one” to speak to a live sales agent. On these robocalls, Defendants allegedly deliver recorded messages frequently claiming to be authorized by Google.
The calls allegedly threaten that Google will label the consumer’s business “permanently closed” unless the consumer takes action. They purportedly invite the consumer to “press one” to speak with a “Google specialist.”
Defendants are charged with violating Section 5(a) of the FTC Act. A temporary receiver has been appointed and a TRO entered. The FTC has acknowledged the assistance of Google during the investigation.
The Complaint can be seen, here.
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Richard B. Newman is an FTC defense lawyer at Hinch Newman LLP focusing on advertising and digital media matters. His practice includes conducting legal compliance reviews of advertising campaigns, representing clients in investigations and enforcement actions brought by the Federal Trade Commission and state Attorneys General, commercial litigation, advising clients on promotional marketing programs, and negotiating and drafting legal agreements. Follow him on Twitter at FTC Defense Lawyer.
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