DRC_Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

Depending how you feel about having your privacy being violated and getting scammed, you’re not going to like this latest information about Google.

Google Maps, which so many of us use to find locations and shop for services, is corrupted with false businesses, some of them scams, according to a lengthy Wall Street Journal investigation.

And Google Chrome, the Internet browser many of us switched to because it was faster and easier to use than Internet Explorer, is so cookie-friendly that The Washington Post calls it “surveillance software.”

There are ways around this.

First, let’s look at Google Maps.

Let’s say you need an emergency locksmith or a garage door repair company and you search Google. A map comes up as part of the search with virtual pins.

Only some of those pins aren’t for real businesses. They’re fronts for companies that ship leads to other companies, or, worse, they’re scam companies.

If you follow The Watchdog closely, this is not news to you. Two years ago, I shared the story of Shareen Grayson of Preston Hollow who unknowingly invited a convicted thief in to fix her freezer.

She found him on Google. A leads company had hijacked the phone number of a legitimate appliance business and passed it on to the thief.

Sad to say that two years later, Google hasn’t shut this scam down.

“The scams are profitable for nearly everyone involved,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “Google included. Consumers and legitimate businesses end up the losers.”

WSJ calls this “chronic deceit.”

Hundreds of thousands of false listings are posted to Google Maps and accompanying ads each month, the newspaper found.

On any given day there are 11 million false businesses on Maps, experts found.

Google doesn’t deny this.

A Google spokesman referred The Watchdog to a recent blog post: “How we fight fake business profiles on Google Maps.”

“Occasionally, business scammers take advantage of local listings to make a profit,” the blog states. “They do things like charge business owners for services that are actually free, defraud customers by posing as real businesses and impersonate real businesses to secure leads and then sell them.”

“These scammers use a wide range of deceptive techniques to try to game our system,” the blog says. “As we shut them down, they change their techniques, so the cycle continues.”

What should you do? The Wall Street Journal offers smart recommendations, and I share them in an accompanying sidebar.

Chrome browser

Meanwhile, I’ve used Google’s Chrome browser for years. Lately, I’ve noticed how slow it can get. Maybe because it loads with more online cookies than I can sneak in an actual midnight cookie run.

The Post tested the browser and reports: “Chrome ushered more than 11,000 tracker cookies into our browser. Here’s why Firefox is better.”

Tech columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler wrote, “It turns out, having the world’s biggest advertising company make the most-popular browser was about as smart as letting kids run a candy shop.”

Google Chrome allows every cookie to enter. Firefox blocks cookies.

Cookies are the little digital breadcrumbs left in your device that remember your preferences and passwords, but also often follow what other websites you visit and what you are searching for.

Recently, Chrome started signing into your Google Gmail accounts automatically. You’ll know if you see your profile photo appearing in Chrome on the upper right-hand corner. That helps Google target ads.

Firefox has added “enhanced tracking protection” that blocks cookies by default on new Firefox installations, The Post reported.

Most websites contain tracking cookies. Cookies help build an online profile of what you do. The Post reminds that your web history isn’t anyone’s “business but your own. Letting anyone collect that data leaves it ripe for abuse by bullies, spies and hackers.”

When I contacted Google, I was directed to a comment made by Ben Galbraith, Chrome’s director of product management:

“Cookies play a role in user privacy, but a narrow focus on cookies obscures broader privacy discussion because it’s just one way in which users can be tracked across sites.”

He added, “This is a complex problem, and simple, blunt cookie-blocking solutions force tracking into more opaque practices.”

I have to tell you: I’ve read that last sentence five times and still can’t figure it out. But I can tell it’s some kind of excuse.

Google referred me to another blog post: “Improving privacy and security on the web.”

In it, Google promises to improve cookie controls in Chrome. Among the promises, you’ll be able to keep cookies for some sites you like, but block others.

The Post story teaches how to make the conversion to Firefox.

Download the latest version called Quantum, if you can.

Firefox “works across phones, tablets, PCs and Macs,” The Post reported. “Apple’s Safari is a good option on Macs, iPhones and iPads.”

Firefox supposedly doesn’t freeze as much when lots of tabs are open. That’s been a problem for me on Chrome.

Plus, my editor reminds me that we can always use other search engines.

I did a search for “search engines that don’t track you.”

DuckDuckGo is the best known, but there are so many others. My boss likes Lukol.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN

The Watchdog Desk at The Dallas Morning News works for you to shine light on questionable practices in business and government. We welcome your story ideas and tips.

Contact The Watchdog

Email: watchdog@dallasnews.com

Call: 214-977-2952

Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265

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