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Media > Newsletters > Consumer Advocate > April 2023 > Search-engine results and unexpected costs

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Search-engine results and unexpected costs

Although search engines – such as Google and Bing - are convenient and reliable venues for finding information on the internet, be aware that some scammers and con artists try to buy search-engine listings to get their websites and toll-free numbers at the top of the search results a user sees. Experts have even crafted a name for scam search-engine results: “malvertising.” 
According to a September 2022 article in the Washington Post, malvertising can include “ads for fake banks, fake sites for the IRS and other government agencies, as well as fake crypto wallets, just to name a few.”
As the article explains, “The bad guys sometimes try to create thousands of accounts simultaneously, in hopes that a few get through.”
There’s no question that some scam ads are, indeed, getting through to at least a few Ohioans. For example, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office heard from a Franklin County consumer in February 2023 who used a major search engine to try to find the toll-free customer-service phone number for Delta Air Lines. Using search-engine results, she called what she later realized was an impostor Delta call center, giving con artists all her personal account and payment information. In this instance, the consumer’s bank thought the charge looked odd and rejected it. Still, concerns about the information she gave out being used to commit identity theft, she and her bank worked together to close that credit-card account.
In January, another Franklin County consumer used a major search engine to try to pay her monthly cable/internet bill. Calling the toll-free phone number that was at of the top search results, she reached a scam call center posing as her provider. When she provided her debit-card number, the scammers proceeded to take more than $300 out of her account.
Some tips for avoiding scam search-engine results:
  • Be cautious of sponsored ads, often found at the top of your search-engine results. Search engines often list paid results first, then results based on popularity, usefulness, etc. There is usually “ad” or something similar on the listing to indicate that a result is paid for/sponsored.
  • Consider installing a reputable ad blocker on your computer to help eliminate legitimate and illegitimate advertisements. Also, find out whether your search engine has a pop-up blocker, and, if so, learn how to control it.
  • Type the full website address in the address bar, instead of searching by name in the search bar. If you plan to visit this website regularly, create a browser bookmark so you can quickly reach the legitimate website in the future.
  • If you see a website associated with your search result, make sure it is the legitimate website of the manufacturer or another reputable source.
Consumers who suspect a scam or an unfair business practice should contact the Attorney General's Office at or 800-282-0515.