JFK International Airport, New York
A jet at JFK International Airport in New York. Image: Jorge Castro Ruso / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Called a bogus airline customer support number? Google is hustling to fix that

Google said it is working to correct all of the fake airline customer service phone numbers that a tech worker discovered this week.

On Monday, Shmuli Evers wrote on Twitter that after his flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was canceled, he googled the customer support number for Delta’s office there.

After nearly handing over his credit card number to buy a new flight, he realized he was speaking to a scammer who had replaced the number for Delta’s JFK office on Google with another one.

Evers checked several airline support phone numbers for offices at JFK, quickly discovering errors on the Google Maps pages for Delta, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Air France, Qantas, ITA Airways and Turkish Airways.

It’s unclear how the scammers altered the Google search results for those phone numbers. A company spokesperson told Recorded Future News that they “do not tolerate this misleading activity.”

Google did not respond to questions about how scammers were able to pull off something like this with so many major airlines.

“[We] are constantly monitoring and evolving our platforms to combat fraud and create a safe environment for users and businesses,” the spokesperson said. “Our teams have already begun reverting the inaccuracies, suspending the malicious accounts involved, and applying additional protections to prevent further abuse."

According to Google, this incident is part of a wider effort by scammers to change the contact information for certain airlines’ local business listings.

Multifaceted response

Google said it has tried to remove incorrect content as fast as possible while also suspending suspicious accounts and even suing those found to be behind the scams.

The company noted that it filed a lawsuit last month against a scammer who was posting fake reviews on Google Maps and attempting to manipulate other Google services for small businesses.

Google previously launched other lawsuits and disruption efforts against scammers attempting to abuse its tools for consumers.

The tech giant uses a combination of human operators and automated technology to constantly monitor Google Maps for these kinds of scams.

Those efforts have stopped more than 20 million attempts to create fake business profiles, the company said. It also put in place protections for 185,000 businesses after detecting suspicious activity and abuse attempts. Google urged businesses to check their pages to verify that all information is factual and to report anything that is inaccurate.

Cleaning up the JFK numbers

None of the airlines listed by Evers responded to requests for comment except for Delta, which said it is in constant communication with both law enforcement and Google about scammers impersonating the company through Google Ads and the search results platform.

“Whenever we become aware of an alleged scam targeting our customers, including in this situation, we immediately conduct an investigation,” a spokesperson said.

“Using the facts gained from an investigation, when able, we can then address each unique situation as appropriate with the necessary legal means at our disposal.”

The airline urged customers to contact it directly through its website, where it has a phone number and messaging option.

As of Tuesday afternoon, all of the scam phone numbers shared by Evers had been removed and replaced with the legitimate phone numbers for the offices at JFK or other New York airports.

The replies to Evers’s tweet are full of people sharing that they were similarly scammed after using the numbers they found on Google Maps or Google search.

Google’s lack of an explanation left many theorizing about what the root cause was. As seen in past lawsuits, Google has previously struggled with problematic activity on the business pages within Google Maps as well as in its ads.

Scammers have in the past used Google Ads to get illegitimate websites to appear in search results before legitimate pages. Some of the comments under Evers tweet theorized that Google is simply approving changes to pages without checking with the businesses themselves.

SocialProof Security CEO Rachel Tobac, an expert in the brand of social engineering attacks used in this situation, said scammers aim to ensure that the bogus phone numbers appear first in Google search results.

“When trying to find the real customer support number, navigate to the travel site directly rather than googling about the phone number. For example, rather than googling ‘call United Customer Support’ go to United.com and scroll down to customer support for help,” Tobac said.

“This is something I hope Google gets on top of soon. In the meantime, remind your friends and family of the many scams that pop up from common Google search results and how to avoid them using the tips above.”

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Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig

is a Breaking News Reporter at Recorded Future News. Jonathan has worked across the globe as a journalist since 2014. Before moving back to New York City, he worked for news outlets in South Africa, Jordan and Cambodia. He previously covered cybersecurity at ZDNet and TechRepublic.