Google Maps' enduring security holes put businesses at risk

It's been more than a year since a series of high-profile articles demonstrated that Google Maps' crowdsourcing function can be used create new listings, alter existing business listings, and even create fake Secret Service offices that real-life cops end up calling.

Nothing much has been done since then to plug Gmaps's vulnerabilities, and instead, many businesses are finding that if they don't hire eagle-eyed consultants to watch their Gmaps records, they are liable to having their businesses listed as closed, moved, or in trouble, thanks to spam-attacks by unscrupulous competitors and pranksters.

The problem isn't limited to Google, of course -- reputation-trashing fake Yelp reviews and other attacks work in concert with Gmaps hacks to put knock legit companies literally off the map.

The original reports on Gmaps' problems stressed the harm to the public from fake, gouging locksmiths and imaginary law enforcement offices. But as Kevin Poulsen points out, for small business owners, the risk goes beyond mere inconvenience -- it's an existential crisis.

Small businesses are the usual targets. In a typical case in 2010, Buffalo-based Barbara Oliver & Co Jewelry saw its Google Maps listing changed to “permanently closed” at the exact same time that it was flooded with fake and highly unfavorable customer reviews.

“We narrowed it down as to who it was. It was another jeweler who had tampered with it,” says Barbara Oliver, the owner. “The bottom line was the jeweler put five-star reviews on his Google reviews, and he slammed me and three other local jewelers, all within a couple of days.”

Oliver’s Google Maps listing was repaired, because she had something Bertagna didn’t have: a web consultant on retainer feeding and caring for her Internet presence. That consultant, Mike Blumenthal, says he’s countered a lot of similar tampering over the years.

“I had a client who’s phone number was modified through a community edit,” says Blumenthal, who closely tracks Google Maps’ foibles in his blog. “It was a small retail shop—interior design. I traced it back to a competitor who left a footprint.”

How Google Map Hackers Can Destroy a Business at Will [Kevin Poulsen/Wired]