When Benjamin Sowers lost his job in the service sector last year because of the outbreak, he along with his fiancée, Keely Reed, brainstormed a new profession: beginning a food truck serving charcuterie and sandwiches, to be stationed outside Reed’s family’s vineyard in Hood River, Ore.. As the opening date in April sped much closer, the truck, also known as Wheels, needed a bank account. To start one, the few had an employer ID number. To get it, Reed did what just about anybody would do.
She googled it.
“The first thing that popped up said something .gov, -gov,” she told The Markup by telephone. “I thought,’Great, this is it.’ “
She clicked and filled out her advice and paid the $250 fee the site requested. She had fallen into a trap, one set by the owner of ein-gov. tax-filing-forms. Com , which paid Google to demonstrate its advertisement from the outcomes for her hunt for”online employer identification number”–and place it above the website of the IRS, the agency that distributes EINs online for free.
Reed had inadvertently stumbled into a cottage industry of websites that charge high premiums for that which are otherwise free or cheap government agencies. It’s a business that continues to use Google’s ad section, despite intentionally breaking Google’s stated policies, and sometimes, the law.
Google’s ad policy states,”Promotions for assistance with applying or paying for official services that are directly available via a government or government delegated provider” aren’t allowed. Nevertheless The Markup discovered a swath of examples of advertisements that appear to do exactly that.
Google has”removed all of these ads for violating our policies,” Google spokesperson Christa Muldoon stated, following The Markup supplied the firm with the advertisements. “We prohibit ads that mislead users by implying an affiliation with a government agency.”
Muldoon didn’t respond to a question concerning why the advertisements were able to violate Google’s policy.
Along with the website that fooled Reed, Tax Filing Forms also functions irs.gov-taxnumber. Com –a URL that contains”irs.gov” but is not affiliated with the IRS. The Markup found ads for that site on Google in search results for”how to get ein.” Tax Filing Forms’ websites share the subdued design of government websites–enough that Reed didn’t pick up on what happened until her banker raised a red flag over a multiday wait time. (The IRS provides EINs right away.)
Reed complained to the company by email and says she was promised a refund, minus a $75 “processing fee,” but says it hasn’t arrived.
Tax Filing Forms didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
A similar ad ensnared Mason Bain, who was moving to Georgia in March. When he went to change his address, he googled”USPS shift speech” and clicked on one of the first links he saw. It was an ad for a site that charged him $59. 03–well above the $1. 05 the U.S. Postal Service charges. Bain, who doesn’t remember the exact name of the site he clicked, kept his receipt, but it doesn’t contain the name of the company or site.
Numerous Google ads for searches like”change my speech USPS” return third-party sites whose fine-print indicates they charge a high fee.
The Markup also found misleading ads for health insurance, purporting to sell “COBRA”–a type of insurance laid-off workers can buy only through their former employer, not from an online vendor. Other Google ads featured the address of the official government health insurance exchange “Healthcare.gov” prominently in big blue type but were actually third-party sites.
“Unfortunately in the age of COVID-19 we’ve seen what seems to be an increase in fraudsters and scammers trying to advertise bogus healthcare policies and applications. It is sad when these offenders try to prey on vulnerable individuals that are just attempting to make sure that they and their nearest and dearest are protected in the high price of medical care services,” Matthew Smith, the executive director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, told The Markup.
The federal agency that administers rules about COBRA told the Markup that it”is concerned about reports such as these on the deceptive sale of’COBRA insurance,'” said Grant Vaught, a spokesperson for the Employee Benefits Security Administration. He advises consumers to contact their state’s insurance regulators”whenever they think they’re being targeted by fraudsters seeking to sell them bogus insurance.”
A person who picked up the phone at Health Plan Options Today, the company behind the”We provide COBRA Insurance” ad, who said his name was Damian, acknowledged that the company doesn’t sell COBRA insurance but said he wasn’t familiar with the company’s Google ads. He said callers were never confused thinking that the company provides COBRA insurance. The company didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.
Rebecca Tushnet, a law professor at Harvard who studies advertising, reviewed the ads in this story at The Markup’s request. “They definitely have the capability to be deceptive,” she said. “If a reasonable consumer is very likely to be deceived concerning the official status of some thing, that can be against the law.
“There are specific laws against impersonating federal officials, but general advertising law also bars false, material representations–so any time a false implication of official status would be received by a substantial number of reasonable consumers and material to them, that would violate the law,” Tushnet said.
Microsoft, that sells search ads for its own Bing search engine in addition to for privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo (Disclosure: DuckDuckGo is a contributor to The Markup), also showed ads for getting an EIN using”irs” or”gov” from the site addresses and advertisements offering to market COBRA health .
“We take fraudulent ads very seriously. Microsoft bans such content, including what can be reasonably perceived as being deceptive, fraudulent or harmful to site visitors,” John Cosley, a senior director in Microsoft’s advertising division, said in an email, citing Microsoft’s policies contrary to misleading advertisements , which it updated last year to prohibit third-party ads for government services. “We are investigating these results,” he explained.
Like Google’s, Microsoft’s policies explicitly ban ads for personal change-of-address sites. But unlike Google, Microsoft seems to abide by this policy; The Markup wasn’t able to locate any ads for personal change-of-address websites sold by Microsoft.
DuckDuckGo spokesperson Kamyl Bazbaz said,”Our ads are serviced by Microsoft advertising,” that sets the ad policies and enforces them.
By and large, it is legal to offer help using services also provided from the authorities. That’s what several of these sites say they are performing in the small-print disclaimers that normally appear on their sites. Dené Joubert, an investigator with the Better Business Bureau, Great West and Pacific, rattled off a list of additional topic areas, like boat registration, where companies greatly promote similar services,”doing the work the consumer could do themselves,” Joubert said. However, she explained,”most follow through” and actually perform the service.
That was not either Reed’s or Bain’s experience. Reed got the EIN for her fiancé’s food truck directly from the IRS. Bain said his mail only began to be forwarded after he changed his speech through the official USPS website.
The disclaimers on websites such as these frequently note that they are not a government agency. But that is not always enough to make them legally kosher, experts say. “The doctrine is that the disclaimer has to work. If a substantial number of consumers are still being deceived, your disclaimer didn’t succeed; it didn’t become a part of the overall message,” Tushnet told The Markup.
There are examples of this government taking action on such scams.
Last year, the Federal Trade Commission sued On Point Global, a company that allegedly advertised sites via Google search where you could renew your driver’s license, buy a fishing license, or determine if you’re eligible for public benefits like Section 8 housing. However, in reality, when people signed up for any of those services, usually for over $20 per, On Point will send them a PDF”guide” containing publicly available details about the best way to finish the job during the standard government website.
This was lucrative. Selling PDF guides earned the company 63.2 million in under two years, based on court documents. Other s
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