Time inconsistent, semi-fraudulent locksmiths and their enemies

by on February 2, 2016 at 12:25 am in Economics, Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

I found this David Segal NYT article difficult to summarize, and surely it was difficult to title, but I found it one of the most interesting pieces I have read in weeks.  Allow me to start in the middle:

To fight lead gens, Google deploys a little-known army of volunteers, called Mappers, many of whom are engaged in a contest that takes wit and stamina. These are people around the world who propose and approve edits to Google Maps, with an assist from Google employees, all in the interest of refining the product and fighting spam — a term that in this context means anything fake and misleading.

It may seem bizarre that people would work gratis for one of the world’s richest companies. But many Mappers turn the job into a calling. For Dan Austin, who lives in Olympia, Wash., it was more like an addiction.

A former truck driver for DHL, he became a Mapper after he was laid off from his job and started fixing mistakes he had noticed on Maps while on the road. By the fall of 2011, Mr. Austin had discovered locksmith spam and was soon spending 10 hours a day, seven days a week, deleting it from Maps.

The premise is this:

The goal of lead gens is to wrest as much money as possible from every customer, according to lawsuits. The typical approach is for a phone representative to offer an estimate [for locksmith work] in the range of $35 to $90. On site, the subcontractor demands three or four times that sum, often claiming that the work was more complicated than expected. Most consumers simply blanch and pay up, in part because they are eager to get into their homes or cars.

Here is another bit from the middle:

Mr. Alverado said those fake buildings were necessary because getting to the first page in Google results now took ingenuity and cunning.

“You have no idea,” he said, sounding a little weary when asked about competition. Israelis were his toughest rivals, he said, and they had instilled a kind of awe in him. “I can tell you point-blank, they are freaking smart,” he said. “I really admire them.”

Every single paragraph is interesting in a different and substantive way, an almost impossible achievement for a piece.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Samir Varma.

1 Steve Sailer February 2, 2016 at 12:58 am

Of course, here in the San Fernando Valley, Israelis are taking over the locksmith business too.

It’s interesting that Israeli culture urges young Israelis to move to America and go into jobs getting access within private places, such as locksmiths, movers (like the four dancing Israelis arrested on 9/11 and eventually deported after a month of interrogation), extremely intrusive “art student” salesmen, telephone metadata software, and electronic firewall experts.

2 msgkings February 2, 2016 at 12:12 pm

“…Israeli culture urges young Israelis to….”


3 ed February 2, 2016 at 3:11 pm

Watch out for dem dare jooooz.

4 Hanzo February 3, 2016 at 1:56 pm

“It’s interesting that Israeli culture urges young Israelis to move to America and go into jobs getting access within private places, such as locksmiths, movers …”.

Hmmm. I wonder if any other countries also engage in this nefarious underhandedness. Like, a country with a much larger population and more resources. Better get on that right away there, Sailer.

5 Otto Maddox February 2, 2016 at 1:18 am

Happened to me with a locksmith. He showed up and asked for a lot more money. I called a competitor in his presence and I immediately received the original offer price from the guy.

6 Pensans February 2, 2016 at 1:47 am

You can’t criticize Israelis for that. You can only criticize them for honest virtues like defending their country with walls etc.

7 dan1111 February 2, 2016 at 2:33 am

Good point. Criticism of a whole group based on one’s anecdotal experience of a few individuals is a lot less valid than criticism based on the national policy that the group enacted.

8 Pensans February 2, 2016 at 5:35 am

Yes, we all know Israelis have no national characteristics. Israelis are no more or less likely to engage in this kind of exploitative behavior than any other national group. Koreans and Swedes are just as likely to commit these act, for example.

9 Hanzo February 3, 2016 at 1:52 pm

… and French, as well as Germans. Might as well throw in those shifty Italians and Spaniards also. Did I mention Canadians? Don’t forget Chinese. Seems everyone is put to get us anymore. Dammit.

10 Peter G February 2, 2016 at 3:01 am

Do you think Forest, MS has this problem? What about those hawala networks?

Google probably had a solution in mind. It’s called Google+ and nobody wanted to join it.

11 Steve Sailer February 2, 2016 at 3:05 am

There appears to be a general pattern of Israeli intelligence encouraging blue collar Israelis who go to America for work to get jobs where they get to barge into otherwise locked places. If they see something interesting, well, drop a line to Mossad. For example, an ABC News special of the five dancing Israeli moving van workers arrested for celebrating 9/11 in New Jersey showed that two likely had Mossad ties:


This isn’t usually some high tech master conspiracy, it’s more of a low-budget way for Israeli intelligence to keep an intermittent eye on people in America, and also to see who of your own people might have some unexpected talent for cloak and dagger work.

12 Nathan W February 3, 2016 at 2:47 pm

Some people consider it anti-semitic to speak about Israeli spies.

13 Steve Sailer February 2, 2016 at 3:09 am

Similarly, high tech Israeli start-ups tend to be disproportionately in fields like commercial telecom software, where it might be convenient to build in backdoors in case somebody wanted to know, say, whom a U.S. Senator was placing late-night calls to.

14 Axa February 2, 2016 at 6:39 am

Read one too many Tom Clancy books? It’s common knowledge among IT security people that the greatest potential leak comes from inside people, i.e. Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, Edward Snowden, Hervé Falciani……..so the rational approach is to apply protocols to avoid leaks from inside trustable people first, then care about outsiders.

15 Steve Sailer February 2, 2016 at 7:53 am
16 Axa February 3, 2016 at 3:22 am

That guy Pollard was US born thus US citizen. Every US citizen with foreign parents is riskier than an US citizen with foreign grandparents?

17 Horhe February 2, 2016 at 7:57 am

And Pollard!

18 Nathan W February 3, 2016 at 2:48 pm

No, he’s anti-semitic for suggesting that Israel has spies.

19 a Fred February 2, 2016 at 12:49 pm

It’s enough to give one the heebie-jeebies.

20 rayward February 2, 2016 at 7:28 am

To paraphrase Nixon, we are all fraudsters now. I too am enthralled by Google maps street view, viewing buildings I know often just to see . . . what? I sometimes forget that I’m not looking at real-time. Or am I? What season is it? Are there leaves on the trees? Who is in that car on the street outside my house? The entire concept of mapping every place in the world is creepy. Was this Rod Serling’s idea?

21 msgkings February 2, 2016 at 12:13 pm

Farther back: Orwell

22 anon February 2, 2016 at 7:37 am

I generally prefer Yelp for such searches, but on both I try to read reviews for .. authenticity.

On Ali Express you see things like 50 five star reviews, all saying “product as advertised”, which is not very inspiring.

23 Hoosier February 2, 2016 at 7:46 am

Yelp is good. It’s usually pretty easy to tell which reviews are authentic. Its for this reason that I never click on a google ad or promoted search result. This article only confirmed my suspicions! Good to know.

24 Urso February 2, 2016 at 11:18 am

The average Yelp review tells you less about the restaurant, more — often much more — about the reviewer.

25 Hoosier February 2, 2016 at 1:50 pm

But you get enough of them and a pattern develops. I generally ignore reviews if there’s less than 30 or so.

26 Dave Barnes February 2, 2016 at 12:37 pm

Yelp is much better.

1. Search on locksmiths and then read some of the reviews.
If a reviewer has written 50+ reviews over the last few years, it is highly unlikely that they are shilling for the locksmith.

2. Yelp is very active in removing bogus reviews. I report 1-2 every day and most are gone within a few days.

27 Slocum February 2, 2016 at 7:46 am

Doesn’t it sound like Google is complicit here? The only reason ‘locksmith’ clicks are worth so much to Ad Words is that they are a ticket to a high fraudulent payoff. If Google managed to really clean up the category, the value of those clicks would drop precipitously. For PR reasons, Google has to *appear* to be trying to solve the problem, but they’re better off if those efforts are ineffective. Which seems to be about the current state of affairs.

28 cfh February 2, 2016 at 9:10 am

$30 per click? Makes me wish the word “incredible” still had meaning.

29 anon February 2, 2016 at 10:09 am

That has to be a Winner’s Curse situation. No way a $30 click can pay out for locksmiths over time. (OK, maybe in Bel Air.)

30 Slocum February 2, 2016 at 10:23 am

I dunno — seems like $30 per click could pay off for the most aggressive fraudsters who are managing to rip off customers for $300

31 anon February 2, 2016 at 10:36 am

I must admit that the Israeli guy who could not fix our old garage door opener did sell us a new one. I thought we drove a hard bargain for that, but …

32 FXKLM February 2, 2016 at 12:02 pm

Presumably because the word “locksmith” appears so many times in the article, all of the ads I see at the NYT website are rather shady looking ads for locksmiths. It seems a little silly to place the blame on Google when the NYT is making its money the same way.

33 Moo cow February 2, 2016 at 12:11 pm

I know. There were a lot of them lol.

34 entirelyuseless February 2, 2016 at 1:02 pm

It’s not fair to call these people “fake locksmiths,” as they are real locksmiths, they are just charging 10 times the value of their product.

That’s the way it is in Israel, they are just doing the same thing in the States. It doesn’t mean anything is fake. A few days after I arrived in Jerusalem, it was not a fake taxidriver, but a real one, who at the end of the ride asked me for $70 for a 3 km trip.

I said, “No,” handed him about $15 and walked away with him yelling that I was cheating him.

35 Ohad February 2, 2016 at 3:38 pm

it was not a fake taxidriver, but a real one, who at the end of the ride asked me for $70 for a 3 km trip.

They are required to turn on the meter at the start of the trip. If they refuse, then take a different cab.

36 MarkB February 2, 2016 at 5:14 pm

Isn’t there a reasonably easy solution to this? It won’t take long to make this unprofitable if we all click 100 locksmith links . . . I’m getting started now.

37 MarkB February 2, 2016 at 5:16 pm

Oh wait, I use ad blocking software . . . I don’t see any of this crap. How is it that everybody else isn’t doing the same?

38 Hanzo February 3, 2016 at 1:47 pm

…. they’re scratching their little heads right now. I thought Adblocker was common knowledge. Jus’ sayin’.

39 _NL February 2, 2016 at 5:34 pm

Maybe the solution is for locksmiths to create an industry-wide certification body. Members in good standing submit a complete price list that must be available online and agree that they will provide a copy of the price list, and a URL to the consortium, to every paying customer. Member locksmiths pay a fee to maintain the system and include a reasonable level of quality checking and enforcement. Customers have multiple avenues to narc on abusive practices. Some early mild violations might be met with punitive fines paid to the customer. Repeated or serious violations result in loss of status.

Not sure about the legality of listing individual locksmiths known to have abusive practices. Maybe they could set up a public customer review system and not investigate any allegations against non-certified locksmiths, but they could investigate members and post a follow-up response on whether the claim has merit.

Instead of endlessly toiling to cut down all the weeds in the world, set up a protected space for the flowers to bloom.

40 Teri February 3, 2016 at 8:10 pm

Price fixing . . . Sherman Antitrust Act . . . can’t do it.

41 Dan Lavatan February 2, 2016 at 7:46 pm

This seems like something Google should solve under the CFAA:
1) Make it a terms of service violation to post locksmith spam, if it isn’t already
2) Capture identifying info of someone doing it, which seems easy since they can demand a phone number, email, or IP
3) Suggest to the feds if they want money in their freezer that they should enforce the law
4) Feds call them and attempt arrest for CFAA violation (Israel should be willing to extradite if they want money).
5) Feds shoot them “trying to escape”
6) Problem solved.

42 Christine February 2, 2016 at 9:33 pm

This article reads like a Michael Lewis book.

43 Prakash February 3, 2016 at 9:39 am

Is it that i have worked in the world of software for too long that it took me all of 2 minutes to find a solution?

The solution is to have the better business bureau provide an API.

{Googling for it} – Lo and behold, they’re at it already . http://www.bbb.org/bbb-api/

If google doesn’t incorporate this right into their main search, someone is going to create a mashup of google search and this API and become the leader in local search.

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