The worst Google scams and how to avoid them

Google provides a vast amount of knowledge at your fingertips, but scammers lie in wait if you search for the wrong thing

Of the trillions of searches Google processes every year, 15% are brand new. Nobody has ever typed those specific queries before. It's unlikely they'll produce fake search results because they're not common enough to attract the attention of fraudsters. Scammers aim big, aiming to exploit search terms that are typed millions of times every day. To avoid those traps, make sure you never search for any of the following.

Software that's been discontinued

When companies stop supporting software and remove download links to it, scammers see a chance to con people who still want to use the program. Search for it on Google and you'll see results promising to provide a download, but it's often malware.

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Sometimes the link does download the genuine program, but charges a fee when previously it was free. That was the tactic used late last year by fraudsters tempting searchers with Windows Movie Maker, which Microsoft stopped offering in October. Click the link in the search result (see screenshot) and you'll be charged $29.95 to unlock the "full version". It's a crafty con that preys on people's natural desire to stick with software they've got used to.

Tech support for Microsoft

Many tech-support scammers actively target you over the phone. They claim to be calling from Microsoft, and declare in a doom-laden voice (often with an Indian accent) that your computer is riddled with malware. The 'miracle' cure is to give them control of your computer. Once in, they waste no time stealing your sensitive info, such as banking passwords.

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Other ne'er-do- wells set a trap on Google, waiting for naive searchers to fall in. Type 'Microsoft tech support' and typically one of the top paid-for results is for GuruAid (see screenshot). Its headline sounds promising: 'Tech Support for Microsoft - Call Now (UK Toll Free) - UK.com'. At first glance, that sounds like official support for Microsoft products. Click through to their (very ugly) website and you're asked to phone a number for "toll-free assistance". But instead of contacting UK experts, you'll reach workers at an Indian call centre who'll subject you to the hardest of hard sells, pestering you to cough up hundreds of pounds to fix minor problems.

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GuruAid has been around for some time. Back in 2011, someone on the Microsoft Forums asked whether they could trust the company. Complaints last year show it's as awful as ever. For genuine help from Microsoft, bookmark its support page or ring 0344 800 2400.

Charities' phone numbers

We're not saying you should stop donating money over the phone, but searching Google for the correct number is fraught with risk. In November last year, the RSPCA complained to Google and Ofcom about sites appearing in results that were advertising expensive premium-rate phone numbers for the charity. People calling the number are put through to the RSPCA's National Control Centre, so they may not realise they've been scammed.

The RSPCA said it found eight rogue sites in the first 10 pages of results. It's hard to remove such sites completely from results, but the charity asked Google to make sure they don't appear too highly.

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As this proves, scammers don't just abuse people's curiosity and confusion; they also take advantage of their kindness. Only phone charity numbers that you find on the official websites.

The web's most popular sites

In 2016 Google removed 1.7bn fraudulent adverts from its results (2017 figures haven't been released yet), but some still sneak through, particularly those for the world's most popular sites. Amazon was a favourite of criminals last year, and they're very good at making the scams seem convincing. In February, the top paid-for result when searching for 'Amazon' was 'www.amazon.com/Amazon'. Cleverly constructed to fool even careful clickers, this link directed people to a Windows-support scam.

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The scam reappeared in November, a few days before the Black Friday sale frenzy began. The greedy fraudsters were hoping to steal some of the millions spent by shoppers. Some people also spotted a similar scam using YouTube search results.

Scammers will always exploit the popularity of such sites, so bookmark them if you're likely to visit them regularly. That applies not just to Amazon and YouTube, but also eBay, Facebook, Wikipedia, Yahoo and Netflix.

Local services on Google Maps

This is the kind of scam that makes you mourn the passing of the Yellow Pages. In April last year Google said it would crack down on criminals listing fake businesses in its Maps service. This scam peaked in 2014-15, when Google detected 100,000 fake listings.

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The company said fraudsters were posing as "locksmiths, plumbers, electricians, and other contractors". When customers phone them, they are quoted a very cheap price. But when the work is done, they are charged a much higher fee.

Google now says it detects and disables 85% of fake listings before they even appear on Google Maps. And to check that a new listing is genuine, it sends a postcard to the company's claimed address. When a business has new owners, Google phones them to verify the change.

While these measures are reassuring, nothing beats word of mouth when booking a local service. A friend's recommendation can't be hacked.

Bitcoin investment advice

Scammers love it a fad becomes a hysteria, because they know it makes people less cautious when clicking results in Google. And nothing generates more hysteria at the moment than Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency which rocketed 1,000% in value last year.

There's nothing wrong with searching Google for more information about Bitcoin, or the Blockchain technology behind it. The safest option is to type a question, such as 'What is Bitcoin?' You'll have a choice of hundreds of safe websites, all explaining how it works and examining (ie, speculating) whether it's a real investment opportunity or a bubble waiting to burst. Here's our own take on both Bitcoin and Blockchain. Importantly, nobody really knows - and don't trust anyone who says they do.

But what you shouldn't search for is 'Bitcoin investment advice', or a similar phrase. This will produce many dubious get-rich-quick schemes guaranteeing a crypto-fortune. Don't get sucked in.

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