Google is taking legal action to stop companies from allegedly using the search giant's name to trick people into paying for supposed work-at-home kits advertised online and in e-mails.
The company filed a lawsuit on Monday in federal court in Salt Lake City against Pacific WebWorks and other, unnamed defendants alleging trademark infringement and dilution, unfair competition, federal cyberpiracy, and violation of consumer sales practices. The lawsuit can be amended to add the names of additional defendants as they are uncovered.
"This action seeks to stop a widespread Internet advertising scam that is defrauding the public by misusing the famous Google brand," the suit says. "The scam victimizes unsuspecting consumers by prominently displaying the famous Google mark, by suggesting sponsorship by the plaintiff Google Inc., and by urging consumers to obtain a kit supposedly showing them how to make money working from home with Google."
A call to Pacific WebWorks seeking comment on allegations of fraud was not returned on Monday.
People are targeted either via online ads, pop-up ads, or promotional e-mails that promise information on how to make money by working at home. The ads typically display the Google brand prominently and include a link to a site with what looks like legitimate news articles, blog postings, or social-networking posts and sites featuring testimonials from people claiming to have made thousands of dollars per month from the program.
Consumers are asked to pay an "instant access" fee for access to a members-only portal or a "shipping and handling fee" for a DVD that supposedly explains how to make money through the program, according to the lawsuit. Many victims who pay the fees, typically a few dollars, either do not get DVDs, they receive DVDs that contain viruses or they get access to an unrelated free site, such as Google's online help center, the suit says.
Meanwhile, people who have provided their credit card information, e-mail, and home addresses find that their credit cards are thereafter charged $50 to $79.90 every month, according to the lawsuit. Consumers find it difficult, if not impossible, to cancel the charges or get refunds, the suit alleges.
The defendants are part of a network that reuses Web sites and shares tools to perpetuate the scams with little effort, the lawsuit alleges. For instance, the same templates are used to generate fake testimonials, blogs, and news stories, often ones that are customized to the location of consumers, the lawsuit alleges.
There are numerous affiliates but Pacific WebWorks is believed to be one of the main operators behind many of the schemes, said Jason Morrison, a search quality engineer at Google.
"These scams play upon some powerful methods of persuasion. Not just by using Google's logo, but we often see 'as seen on CNN, Fox News and ABC,'" he said in an interview. "I don't know if people understand how easy it is to copy an image file on a Web page. They also try to use social proof by creating a fake blog, with a photo of the blogger from his wedding, the newhe bought, and explaining how he lost his job. They go to great lengths to string people along."
Google works to remove the fraudulent ads from its search results and ad network and to keep new fraud sites from popping up in the index, but new ones are created all the time, according to Morrison.
He suggested that people do some Web research before answering any ads and look to see if consumers have complained online about the company, as well as be skeptical of any offers that sound like they are too good to be true. Victims should contact their bank or credit card company and report fraudulent-looking results found in Google searches here and fraudulent-looking ads here.
More information from Google about the scams is in this Google blog post.
This isn't the first action taken against alleged work-at-home scams. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission obtained an injunction and asset freeze in Nevada against a group of sites operating a scam using the "Google Money Tree" name this summer. Some fraudulent sites were removed, but thousands remain, Google said.
Last month, a class action suit was filed in state court in Illinois against Pacific WebWorks by Barbara Ford, who is described as "elderly, retired and on a fixed income."
Ford claims she clicked on an ad on her AOL home page with a fake news article describing how one woman made $5,000 a month with the program. She alleges she paid $1.97 for a "Google Business Kit" and that her credit card was also charged $79.90. She called the company to request a refund and never received one, according to the lawsuit.
There also are a number of complaints listed about Pacific WebWorks on the Rip Off Report Web site.