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Scammers Swap Phone Number With Legit Business, Customers Pay Price

GRAND PRAIRIE (CBS11 NEWS) - A Grand Prairie woman used Google to find a highly-recommended repairman, but says instead scammers showed up at her door.

When Courtney Pearson's washing machine gave her an error message earlier this year, a friend recommended she call Al's Guaranteed Appliance Repair. She said he recognized the problem while they were on the phone. "He actually talked me through things and we fixed it that way."

Thus when the washer broke eight months later, she decided to call Al once more. "I typed 'Al's Guaranteed Appliance Repair' into Google and right there was his information and the number." Pearson said no one answered her call, but seconds later she received a text message, asking if she needed appliance help. She said the man, who called himself "Alex," agreed to come give her a free estimate the next day.

Alex and another man, Rafael, showed up right on time. "They started bringing in shop vacs and buckets and I thought, 'okay, these two guys have it handled.' " An hour later, the men told her they had replaced a valve and wrote a receipt for $420. Pearson said she was shocked at the price but felt she had to pay. She wrote a check out to Rafael, the men left, and she put in a load of laundry.

Pearson said the washing machine began leaking within minutes. She called the men and asked them to come back but they told her to let the machine finish the cycle. Pearson said the men cashed her check with an hour, but didn't return her calls and eventually blocked her number.

That's when she looked up Al's Guaranteed Appliance Repair again. This time, she called the number listed on Yelp. "He had no idea what I was talking about," said Pearson. "It started to dawn on me the guys that came out here had no affiliation."

The real Al -- Al de la Cerda -- said someone else put their number on his Google listing. "I'm sitting here twiddling my thumbs, not getting calls, and someone changed the number on my site."

Consumer Justice found it's easy enough to do. Google business listings have an option to "suggest an edit," letting almost anyone change the address, phone number, and other information.

Consumer Justice called Rafael, the man who came to Courtney's house. He said he didn't edit the Google listing, but indicated that it may have been done by a telemarketing company he hired. Rafael said he plans to pay Courtney back the $420.

Rafael also said, he did do work on her washer but it actually needed another new valve.

Meanwhile the real Al changed his Google listing back to his number, but he's worried about how many other Courtneys are out there.

A Google spokesperson told Consumer Justice there are safeguards in place in the "Google My Business" feature, which allows merchants to be notified through email when edits are suggested.

Google sent the following answers to questions posed by Consumer Justice:

How does this happen? Can anyone edit a Google business listing?

We're heavily invested in empowering users to contribute their local knowledge to Google products and services. Users can use the "suggest an edit" tool to update business listing information. Other users can then vote on whether the edit is accurate or not. This blog post shares additional details on how it works.

What safeguards are in place to protect businesses?

Merchants who manage their business listing info through Google My Business (which is free to use), are notified via email when edits are suggested. Spammers and others with negative intent are a problem for consumers, businesses and technology companies that provide local business information. We use automated systems to detect for spam and fraud, but we tend not to share details behind our processes so as not to tip off spammers or others with bad intent.

How can Google users know they are calling the real business, and not an imposter?

Overall, allowing users to suggest and moderate edits provides comprehensive and up-to-date info, but we recognize there may be occasional inaccuracies or bad edits suggested by users. When this happens, we do our best to address the issue as quickly as possible.

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