#76 Lost in a Cab

September 8, 2016

Liz lost her camera in a cab, so she went to the New York City Taxi website to submit it to their lost and found database. At least, that’s what she thought she did. Alex investigates and finds a big business behind the success of a suspicious little website.

Further Reading

If you lose something in a cab in New York City, Call 311, or go to this website.

The Department of Consumer Affairs encourages anyone who feels they have been misled by yellowcabnyc.com to file a complaint with DCA‎ online at nyc.gov/consumers or by calling 311.

 

Show transcript

ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.

PJ VOGT: And I’m PJ Vogt.

PJ: And this week —

ALEX: Uh, yeah?

PJ: This week, as you well know, we have a segment on the show called Super Tech Support. You, Alex, before you were whatever you are now, uh, you worked in technical support. You were a technical support … man.

ALEX: [laughs] I was a network administrator.

PJ: You were an IT wizard.

ALEX: Yeah, and more and more with these Super Tech Support segments I feel like that totally didn’t prepare me for the work that I am doing.

PJ: Of course it did. So your job was, at the — your job now is that sometimes people email the show with some technical support problem and you will fix it no matter where that takes you.

ALEX: Yeah, and it always takes me some place far afield of my actual skills.

PJ: When this was really your job, did you just have to plug in ethernet cables and talk to people?

ALEX: Yeah it was like, “Reseat your power cord.”

PJ: Reseat your power cord? Is that a thing?

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: How does that work?

ALEX: You unplug it and you plug it back in. That’s reseating it.

PJ: Why would you say “reseat” when you could just say “unplug it and plug it back in?”

ALEX: No, no, unplug it from the back of the computer, not just from the wall.

PJ: That you think…

ALEX: [laughs]

PJ: This is like how bad manuals that don’t make sense to humans get written. You are like, “No no no, by ‘reseat’ obviously I mean this kind of unplugging and plugging it in.”

ALEX: I just did what my bosses told me to do.

PJ: Okay. So this week, Super Tech Support.

[Super Tech Support theme song]

ALEX: So a couple months ago we got an email from a woman named Liz. And Liz was visiting New York City.

PJ: From?

ALEX: The West Coast.

PJ: Okay. Of?

ALEX: The United States. [laughs]

PJ: I’m sorry that I’m not so US-centric.

ALEX: You should be. And she was doing typical New York stuff, like going to Times Square, going to the Financial District, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, all the stuff that …

PJ: People do.

ALEX: People do. And at one point, she was in a cab … she got out of the cab, but left her camera in it.

PJ: Eee.

ALEX: And it was like, a fancy camera, like an SLR fancy camera.

PJ: Okay.

ALEX: So she’s on the street, she realizes like the moment she gets out of the cab, that her camera’s in the cab.

PJ: She’s like watching it pull away.

ALEX: Right.

LIZ: And it’s like awful, it’s like, ah, the camera!

ALEX: Oh, I’m so sorry.

LIZ: And the thing is like, the camera wasn’t the big deal, but all those memories, it was like our once-in-a-lifetime trip, and all the memories are like on that SD card. So it’s like … devastating.

So Liz is in a total panic, she’s trying to figure out the best way to deal with this, and she does exactly what I would have done if I were in her situation.

LIZ: So the very first thing I did is like I went to my mobile phone, typed in, you know, like “lost and found New York taxicab.” And, you know, I just relied on basically Google to help me get to where I needed to go.

And she clicks on the first link that she sees, which is a site called “YellowCabNYC.com.”

LIZ: So I ended up on this site that looks very official. You’re led to, file a report, and I’m like, okay great, you know, I put all of the details in, the kind of camera it was, like what color it was, exactly where I left it … and I was feeling like, okay, at least there’s a way that I can try to get it back.

So you fill out all this information and you hit submit, and then the very next page is kind of where you’re like, “Wait a second,” [laughs] because it’s — they ask you to pay $47. Just to file the report. And I’m thinking, wait a second. What?! $47 just to tell them, like, I’ve lost something. So that was a bit of a red flag.

PJ: Did she pay it?

ALEX: She did.

PJ: Because she was just like —

ALEX: She was desperate, she lost all of the pictures from her vacation.

PJ: Also I feel like when people come to New York, they’re just like, another person asking me to take money in an unreasonable way? Okay, whatever.

ALEX: Yeah. It doesn’t seem — it’s like, New York —

PJ: Nothing seems weird.

ALEX: — is like this rough and tumble city. Nothing seems crazy.

PJ: You get like a red pepper and it’s like $15 and you’re like, I guess this is life now …

ALEX: So she pays the $47, she goes back to the homepage of the website and sees a disclaimer — small, upper right hand corner, that says …

LIZ: “Yellowcabnyctaxi.com does not take affirmative steps to find lost property, and is a private enterprise not affiliated with the TLC.”

Okay, so for listeners who are not from New York, the TLC is the Taxi and Limousine Commission — who are the folks who actually handle the taxi lost and found. And this site is not only saying, “We have nothing to do with the TLC,” it’s also saying, “We don’t actually do anything to get your stuff back.” The claim they do make on this site is, quote, “Filing a report at YellowCabNYCTaxi.com will increase your chance in targeting both public audience and yellow cab drivers.” End quote.

LIZ: Your lost item gets listed alongside your phone number on this stupid website … so you think, by the way, and I think that’s opening up a whole new other avenue. Like if people want to know who to scam, just go to this website, and start calling these phone numbers, because if we were dumb enough to put our name and our phone number on there … [laughs]

ALEX: [laughs uproariously]

LIZ: People could totally scam these people.

PJ: God that sucks.

ALEX: Yeah and Liz just felt scammed. She was angry and she wanted to know how on Earth could it be so easy for a site like this to operate in broad daylight with no one paying any attention to it. And so … being the Super Tech Supporter … I had to go investigate.

Okay, so I looked into YellowCabNYC.com, and it is so much more messed up than you can ever imagine.

So for starters I called 14 people who’ve used it. None of them got their stuff back through the site and a few of them were like, “Wait a minute, that wasn’t the official site?” So that obviously raised some red flags for me, that Liz was not the only person that was confused by this.

So I tweeted, quote, “Looking for someone to tell me if a website selling a service is legal — who should I talk to about that?” And this lawyer named Ryan Morrison tweeted back, and he told me that he was happy to talk.

RYAN MORRISON: What’s the, uh, preferred range on these — talk here or here?

ALEX: Uh, a little closer.

RYAN: Alright, cool.

And the first thing he said to me was, “Oh my god, this site is definitely trying to fool people into thinking that it is official.” For example, he says the little disclaimer in the upper right hand corner that Liz saw right after she paid them $47 — it is just not good enough.

RYAN: This disclaimer would need to be a lot more prominent, in that it should be a hurdle to overcome to make the payment. It shouldn’t be thrown in the top right of the website in small letters.

ALEX: So basically in order for it to be prominent enough, if you were about to — if your credit card was about to be processed, it would have to, like, pop up and be like, “Just so you know, you’re about to pay for something that doesn’t work and is fake.”

RYAN: Yes I mean so … in this instance, it’s still probably not enough, because this is so clearly nothing. They’re not doing anything. They say, quite literally, we don’t take any action to help you.

ALEX: Ryan says that even though the website doesn’t do anything, it succeeds because it’s targeting this very vulnerable audience — people who are in a total state of panic.

RYAN: Before I was an attorney a decade ago, I left a cell phone in a cab and I believe I signed up on this website or one like it.

ALEX: Wait what?!

RYAN: Yeah, I’m not kidding. I showed my girlfriend this when you’d sent it to me, and we went through it, and she was like, “Didn’t you use this?” And I was like, “Oh, maybe, wow!”

ALEX: That’s insane!

RYAN: I Googled, basically, probably “yellow cab lost and found,” this is the first result, and assumed it was legitimate.

ALEX: Oh my god.

RYAN: And that’s why it’s hard for me to sit here, and even if I hadn’t done this, it’s hard to judge people who do desperate things in desperate situations. It’s so easy to say, “Well that guy’s an idiot, why would you ever use this website, or why would you ever do that?”

Ryan can’t wrap his head around why the city hasn’t tried to shut this site down. Because he thinks it would actually be really easy.

RYAN: Ninety-nine percent of the time, one scary lawyer letter on lawyer letterhead is usually enough to get a website like this down. This would be a seemingly — a very simple takedown.

So I was like, great, easy solution. All the city has to do is send a letter and no more problems with this site. So I talked to this guy named Allan Fromberg. He is the Deputy Commissioner at the TLC, and he said, “Yeah yeah yeah.”

ALLAN: We did send them a letter, asking them very sternly, you know, in the manner of a cease and desist letter, that they disclaim very strongly, um, that they’re not in any way, shape or form affiliated with the Taxi and Limousine Commission. And in fact they — they did do that.

And according to Allan, apparently complaints have decreased about the site since the disclaimers went up, and he’s surprised that we’re even still talking about it. And so I asked him, “Well, why don’t you just shut the site down?” And he told me that that would fall to the city’s Department of Consumers Affairs. So I reached out to the Department of Consumer Affairs … and all they told me was that people can file complaints about YellowCabNYC.com at the Department of Consumer Affairs website.

So, I am not a betting man, but I don’t think that any city agency is going to be shutting this site down anytime soon.

PJ: Right.

ALEX: I started to wonder how much money this site could be making, and I realized that I could figure it out, because I know that the website is charging $47 per entry in this database, I saw that there were about 350 entries in the database a month, and if you multiply that by 12, it’s like, this site could be making almost $200,000 a year.

PJ: That’s insane.

ALEX: It’s like somebody found the perfect money-maker with this website.

So naturally I was wondering who that someone was, like, who is behind YellowCabNYC.com? And looking at the Whois record, I saw that it’s a guy named Mark Jakubczak.

ALEX: There’s not a lot of information on Mark Jakubczak, but what I did is I looked up how many websites were registered under the name Mark Jakubczak —

PJ: Ohhhh. Does he run a lot of … ?

ALEX: — to see if there was anything else.

PJ: Yeah? I wanna see so bad.

ALEX: Um, well. Why don’t I just bring it up for you and you can read it out loud to me.

[slides computer]

PJ: Mmmmmhhmmh! AirportLostandFound.com.

ALEX: [laughs] Yeah, so this site, it’s basically the same as YellowCabNYC.com, but in this case, it claims to work with over 11,000 airports and airlines to help you find lost stuff. I called a bunch of airlines — and only Southwest got back to me, but they said, quote, “We have no affiliation or partnership with this site,” unquote. And he has, uh, one more website.

PJ: Oh my god, what’s the other website.

ALEX: Well, let me show it to you.

PJ: What a piece of crap, man!

ALEX: What’s it called?

PJ: Oh my god. “PetAmberAlert.com: America’s missing broadcast emergency response alert for pets.” You lost your dog, you’re really desperate, why don’t I trick you into giving me money, and then you read the disclaimer and realize I’m not helping? I want to break your computer over my leg.

ALEX: I see anger in your eyes, like, that is pretty unparalleled. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like so …

PJ: It makes me so mad.

ALEX: … incoherently angry before.

And I will say this: it does seem like Pet Amber Alert sometimes does put up posters and make phone calls, but most of comments you see online about this site are just that it’s a scam, it doesn’t work.

Now Mark Jakubczak actually went on a Dallas nightly news program to defend Pet Amber Alert. Here’s some tape of that:

MARK: This is the way our service works, you know, we send out all the … calls and faxes and then if you read our disclaimer that the lawyer drafted up, it explains that you know some places might not just throw the poster in the trash, or some neighbors might not … you know, even want to pick up the call.

PJ: Most people who … really try to fix things don’t mention the disclaimer they had their lawyer write within like the third sentence of explanation.

AG: Yeah, um, it doesn’t acquit you really.

PJ: [laughs]

AG: Um, and there’s one more thing that I learned about Mark Jakubczak — which is that he lives in Brooklyn.

PJ: Really?

ALEX: He’s close by.

[Street sounds]

So me and Reply All producer Chloe Prasinos, we went to Mark’s neighborhood to see if we could talk to him. And I called him when we got there.

[Phone ringing]

AUTOMATED VOICE: Your call has been forwarded to an automated voice messaging system.

I left him a voicemail.

ALEX: Okay.

CHLOE PRASINOS: Which way, left or right?

ALEX: I don’t know, let’s find out.

So we just decided to go to his house, and see if he was home.

ALEX: It’s right here I think. Yeah, it is. [groans]

[Door creaks]

ALEX: Is that it?

CHLOE: Yeah, it’s 3L.

ALEX: How do you know?

CHLOE: From, uh, from the internet.

ALEX: Alright.

[Doorbell rings]

[Doorbell rings a second time]

CHLOE: One more time, but like hold it down.

[Doorbell rings, louder and longer this time]

CHLOE: That was good.

ALEX: No answer. So, we wrote him a note. And we left it in his mailbox. And as we were leaving the little vestibule in the front of his building, I looked at my phone —

CHLOE: Wait, did he call you?

ALEX: Did he call me? I think he did?

I called him back, I left another voicemail, and then about 10 minutes later …

ALEX: Hello?

MARK: Hi, is this Alex?

ALEX: Yeah.

MARK: Yeah, um, I just had a missed call from you?

ALEX: Yeah, is this Mark?

MARK: Yeah.

ALEX: Hi, uh, so I’m a radio reporter…

ALEX: I said, “Would it be possible to meet you today?” And he said, “No, I’m in Florida visiting family. I’m going to Disneyland.” And … I said “Ok, no problem. Would it be possible for me to just go back to our studio and give you a call so that I can talk to you over the phone and we can just record it?” and he said, “Yeah that’s fine.”

[Sound of subway]

And then I got on the train, and … as the train was pulling out of the Greenpoint Avenue station, I got a text which said:

ALEX: “I can answer your questions via email. I’m self-conscious of my voice and not comfortable being recorded on radio, especially while visiting my family. Can you please email me a list of your questions, the people you claim feel scammed. No one has emailed us with those type of concerns and we have a 100-percent satisfaction guarantee, and issue full refunds for people who are not satisfied with their lost property posting.

We’ve not had any complaints since adding disclaimers to the top of the site so I’m not sure where this is coming from. Thanks.”

ALEX: Now I have a couple thoughts about this. One of which is … I think that if people think that they are going to the TLC’s website, why would they call him up asking for a refund? If they’re being misled, they are less likely to call and complain about being misled, because they’ve been misled.

PJ: Right. The people — it’s actually what makes it kind of a good scam, is like, the people who are pissed, it’s like this weird, thin sliver of Venn Diagram. It’s like people who would fall for it, but then would notice they’ve fallen for it. Which is probably not a ton of people.

ALEX: Right. So Chloe and I finished our reporting, we got back to the office, and then Chloe made this very interesting discovery.

CHLOE: We’re rolling.

ALEX: OK.

CHLOE: So, uh Alex, something has happened since you and I went to find Mark this morning.

ALEX: OK.

CHLOE: Since we went out there the price for the services that the website offers has gone down.

ALEX: Down from … okay, it was $47 —

CHLOE: And now it’s $19.95.

ALEX: Get the fuck out of here! Are you serious?

CHLOE: Yes, I’m — it seems that we really have um … we have some sway.

So within an hour of getting our phone call, Mark had dropped the cost of the service. Which we verified by calling someone who’d used the site 45 minutes before we got to Greenpoint.

PJ: Because what? Like, why? Like what is he doing?

ALEX: It looks to me like a panic move, like, “Oh someone is paying attention to me, I should make some change that mitigates how bad my website looks.”

PJ: But it’s like … he’s not saying he did anything wrong, but he’s just flinching in a really obvious way.

ALEX: Right.

So I spent a couple days trying to get Mark to talk to me and every time it seemed like he was about to, he’d just, like, not respond to an email, and I’d start a new email thread, and I was like, “Can you just give me a satisfied customer?” No response.

PJ: Young people — young people call what he did to you “ghosting.”

AG: [laughs] I realize that, like, I realize that there was no chance of him doing an interview with me. Like he slipped through my fingers.

PJ: Like a ghost.

ALEX: Yeah.

ALEX: But as I was reporting this story, I started to realize that Mark was just like the symptom of a much larger problem. And that is that Mark’s website did not show up as the first search result because, um, people naturally go to Mark’s website as opposed to the TLC’s. It showed up because he paid for it to be at the top. He used a service called Google AdWords, which I’m sure you’re familiar with.

PJ: Yeah yeah yeah. It’s like the paid ad results you get when you search for something on Google, but they look almost identical to real search results.

ALEX: Right. They have a little green square that says “Ad” in the corner. But especially on a mobile phone, it can be very hard to tell them apart from a regular search result.

PJ: Okay. I feel like I have to say some things before we go forward. Two disclosures. One: Google has advertised AdWords on Reply All before.

ALEX: That’s correct.

PJ: Two: Even though you want to have this convo with Mark Jakubczak, I think it’s ok that he won’t talk to you. Because I’ve had basically that conversation and it’s very, very frustrating.

So I didn’t have it with Mark Jakubczak himself. But I have been personally, like, a victim of AdWords tomfoolery — like I have fallen for this thing. And so it’s like, I think some of my outrage about this story is because like it completely happened to me.

ALEX: (laughing) I’m sorry I’m laughing. That’s terrible.

PJ: I’m sorry you’re laughing. So you probably half-remember this, but back in the spring, uh, I was going on a reporting trip to St. Louis, uh, I needed to reschedule a flight —and there is like a world of panic and worry in that sentence, like, at that airport, missing wallet, etcetera etcetera, just imagine me … the way that I often am.

ALEX: I just imagine the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme playing.

PJ: The Curb Your Enthusiasm theme was, like, playing in quadraphonic sound inside my head, and, like, the devil was doing it on like a baseball organ. It was awful.

And, so, in a panic — I was flying Delta — I whipped out my phone, I Googled “Delta support” and I called them to reschedule this flight. I get them on the phone, I was trying to see if I could do it for not a lot of money; they charged me a ton of money, but I did it, got the flight rebooked, took my flight.

Much later in the day, I called Delta, like, back, cause I was trying to get a refund. I was like, “I don’t think you should have charged me that huge penalty” — and they were like, “We didn’t.”

ALEX: Wait wha –

PJ: So I hadn’t called Delta. Like, I had Googled “Delta help number,” I’d gotten what looked like a Google search result pointing me to Delta, I called that phone number, I talked to a person who sounded like they worked for Delta, I’d given them my credit card, they sold me a ticket at like a huge markup — but they weren’t Delta.

ALEX: Oh that’s awful. I’m sorry.

PJ: I’m sorry. And so I called them, very angry, at nine o’clock at night, on the side of the road in some park in St. Louis, and just like recorded the call. I have to tell you, even listening to this now still makes me very angry.

VOICE: Thank you for being on hold, you’re talking to a manager. How can I help you?

PJ: Who am I speaking to?

Voice: You’re talking to Patrick.

PJ: And, okay, so I called you — your company earlier today, thinking that I was calling Delta.

VOICE: Mhmm.

PJ: And paid a bunch of money to a company I thought was Delta to change my flight but it wasn’t Delta, it was you guys.

VOICE: Ok. So did you get your flight, sir? Were the changes done or not?

PJ: The changes were done but you charged me for something that didn’t — wouldn’t have cost me anything if I was talking to Delta.

VOICE: And how is that possible? Did you try to make the changes online sir?

PJ: No, I called a number that I thought was Delta’s because when you Google “Delta help”…

VOICE: Sir, then how are you so sure that without calling Delta or by calling Delta the amount wouldn’t have been that?

PJ: Because Delta just told me that on the phone. They said there was no difference in the ticket price. You guys misrepresented yourself as Delta and I’d like you to refund the charge.

VOICE: Not really sir, we did not represent — misrepresent us. I just have a quick question for you here. When you called in, right, did you receive a Docusign … which clearly shows that authorized us to charge $417.

PJ: Right, because you misrepresented yourself as Delta.

Voice: Sir, we have call recording, no one ever said that we were Delta Airlines.

PJ: No, you didn’t have to, because when I Googled “Delta help number,” your number comes up and it says “Delta.”

VOICE: It doesn’t say “Delta.”

PJ: Yes it does, I’m looking at it right now. I literally — I’m holding my phone right now, I’ll tell you what it says. I searched “Delta help” and it says your number, and it says “Delta-airlines.usflightfairs.com – Delta Airlines flight reservations.”

VOICE: That’s right. See, the name that you see there, right, does it anywhere say it is Delta Airlines?

PJ: Twice it says Delta Airlines!

VOICE: Sir, it does not say, even if you check Expedia or any other airlines, no one would ever say that we are Delta Airlines. Name of the company is mentioned right there as well.

PJ: Is this all the business you do? Is it confused people? Or is it also people who mean to do business with you.

VOICE: Sir, we are a — just a travel agency.

ALEX: (laughing) Wow, that’s an infuriating phone call.

PJ: Yeah.

ALEX: So … what happened?

PJ: I continued to be very angry and talk in a really high voice. It went on forever, and then at some point, I said, like, “By the way, like, I’m going to do a story about this, like, I’m journalist.” And then immediately everything changed. It was like, they put me on hold, they came back, “Here’s a refund, have a nice day, goodbye.” Which, like, I feel guilty about. Like, I got special attention, I wasn’t trying to do that.

And I don’t know, like, maybe this was just the most confusing misunderstanding in the world, and they weren’t trying to scam me. What I do know is that I saw an ad that I thought was a search result with Delta’s phone number, I called that phone number, thought I was talking to Delta, and instead gave a bunch of strangers, who I still don’t know who they are, gave them a bunch of my money — and, like, Google led me there.

ALEX: So my question is: based on your experience with fake Delta Airlines —

PJ: Uh-uh.

ALEX: — and Liz’s experience with YellowCabNYC.com, why are these ads being served to us, why isn’t Google stopping them before they get to us?

PJ: Yes! That is what I want to know. I want to know why Google grabs idiots like me by the hand and tells them they’re dropping them off at, like, Delta’s store, when really it’s just some scammer in California. Like, why don’t they police this?

ALEX: After the break … I’ll tell you.

[BREAK]

ALEX: Welcome back to the show. So the common denominator in both Liz’s story about YellowCabNYC and PJ’s story about this fake Delta website is that both of them managed to find their way to these sites through a Google ad that appeared above the search results for whatever they were looking for. So what I wanted to know is, if all these sites depend on Google ads to exist, why isn’t Google doing anything about them?

PJ: Yeah, like, this is like how I felt after it happened to me, is why doesn’t Google just like police this?

ALEX: Well, I looked into that. And Google actually does police this. They do a report every year that’s they call the “Better Ads Report.” And they said in 2015 that they took down 780 million ads.

PJ: Oh my god.

ALEX: Yeah.

PJ: Does that mean that on the scale of bad behavior 780 million people were worse than Mark? Or does it just mean, like, you know, they pull over as many people as they see for speeding and Mark didn’t happen to get pulled over?

ALEX: It’s a lit – it’s kind of not either of those.

PJ: What is it?

ALEX: What’s actually happening is, so, Google has, sort of like bright line rules about what you can and can’t advertise. So, like, obviously, you can’t put up stuff that has malware in it. You can’t do phishing scams, you can’t, uh —

PJ: You probably can’t sell stuff that’s actually illegal. Like, you probably couldn’t sell, like, elephant tusks.

ALEX: Right. And they also have rules, just, they don’t allow you to sell guns, they don’t allow you to sell knives, right?

PJ: Right.

ALEX: So, I was wondering where Mark’s sites fall on the scale of policy violations for Google. And it’s notoriously hard to get Google to explain this stuff, so I called in an outside expert. Her name’s Ginny Marvin, she’s a reporter for a website called Search Engine Land — and I showed her how YellowCabNYC.com works. We started on the lost and found page.

GINNY MARVIN: Okay, so, um it doesn’t say how — is there any way to search once you come here?

ALEX: No no.

GINNY: How does this work, where does this show up?

ALEX: If you go to the “Lost Property” tab there’s a database that has people’s first names, their phone numbers …

GINNY: Oh my god … that had their phone numbers on here? [gasps] Oh my gosh this is insane … This is making me mad now. [laughs]

But — when Ginny looked a little closer, she saw at least one thing on the site that might keep Google from going after it.

GINNY: They do have the big 800 number, Google will like that.

She’s talking about how on the right side of every page on the site, you see this big 1-800 number, that makes it look easy to get in touch with the business.

GINNY: That’s gonna be a big plus for them.

And … it is a real number.

[VOICEMAIL MUSIC PLAYING]

VOICEMAIL VOICE: “Did you lose something in a cab? Unfortunately, YellowCabNYC only accepts lost and found inquiries online. Please hang up and go to www.YellowCabNYC.com and click on ‘lost property’ to submit your lost item report. All lost and found requests must be submitted online. Thank you.”

It says you can leave a message.

GINNY: There’s no easy way to say, “This is egregious.” I can’t look at that site and then look at the AdWords policy and say, “Here’s exactly where this site is in violations of the AdWords policies and why this site should be — should not be allowed to advertise in its current form.”

It almost feels like this site was reverse-engineered to, like, sidestep Google AdWords policy.

Now, Google obviously wants to take down scammers because Google’s whole business model relies on people trusting Google. And the company says that it has over 1,000 people working to fight bad ads, which sounds like a lot. Except, according to Google, those 1,000 people were responsible for the 780 million ads that were taken down last year. And that team heard from internet users 4 billion times last year.
PJ: So it’s like finding out that there’s like 1,000 police officers in the whole world.
ALEX: [laughs] Yes. And you kind of have to wonder, how many bad ads are they missing?

GINNY: It’s basically — so it is, it’s like a Whack-A-Mole. So, it’s a game of Whack-A-Mole. You’re always trying to go after people who are trying to beat the system. And there are always going to be people that are trying to beat the system.

ALEX: So of course I tried to reach out to Google — Google did not want to do an interview.

PJ: They never want to do an interview.

ALEX: Yeah I know they don’t.

PJ: I feel like we should call Google and say, like, “Hello, we, uh, we have a storage locker here with your name on it. Uh, we — apparently it’s got a bunch of valuable stuff in it. Uh, just give us a call back so we can help you get this storage locker open.”

ALEX: And then we’d be like — we’d try and ask them a lot of leading questions to get to an interview.

PJ: Yeah we’d be like, “Do you remember your password for this storage l ocker?” They’d be like, “No,” and then we’d be like, “Okay, let us ask you some questions to help us help you remember your password.”

PJ: “How come you guys don’t do better enforcement of scammy advertisers?”

ALEX: [laughs]

PJ: “What was your mother’s maiden name?”

ALEX: [laughs]

PJ: You think that’s not a good idea?

ALEX: Umm . . . So, yeah, Google didn’t make anybody available for an interview.

PJ: And you didn’t try the storage locker thing.

ALEX: And I didn’t try the storage locker thing.

PJ: So where does that leave us?

ALEX: Well … Normally this is the part of the story where I’m like, “Alright, here’s the forward momentum, here’s the way that I solved this problem, here’s the progress we made.”

PJ: (laughing) The fact that you say that makes me think we not be getting to that part of the story.

ALEX: And then, uh, you know, the best hold music in the world plays … What I want to say is, like, we’ve learned so much, there’s like so many teachable moments here: be smarter about Google AdWords, don’t be — don’t be so willing to accept that anything that appears on a Google page is like, okay, and they’re leading you in the right direction. But really all I’ve learned is like, I’m a failure.

PJ: Whoa. First of all, even for me that feels like a mean thing for you to say about yourself.

ALEX: (laughs painfully) Thank you.

PJ: Uhh …

ALEX: Okay. So here’s like the concrete victory that I can point to.

PJ: Okay.

ALEX: Um … Liz was very worried about her phone number being on the website, and, as a result of my constant calling of people who used Mark Jakubczak’s database —

PJ: Uh-huh.

ALEX: — he took the phone numbers off of the site. So, um, I accomplished that for her?

PJ: That’s something.

ALEX: Yeah, well, thank you. And, um, when I spoke to Google they did say that Mark’s sites were “under review.” But, who knows. Um, the one other thing that I tried was — so, YellowCabNYC runs on AdWords.

PJ: Right.

ALEX: I thought that maybe I could like buy ad — Google AdWords for the words “lost and found taxi New York City” and just have it go to a website that’s like, “Don’t go to YellowCabNYC.com!”

PJ: Right. Like, you would — so that if somebody typed in, like, “I lost my camera in a taxi,” they’d get warned, basically.

ALEX: Right. But, um, that was way too expensive.

PJ: Right.

ALEX: But I thought, like, okay, what if I didn’t buy ads, but instead I just made a website that offers free resources for all the things that Mark’s businesses supposedly help people with. Like, free lost pet resources, free New York City taxi lost and found resources, free … um, resources for people who’ve lost stuff in the airport.

PJ: Then that will do basically nothing.

ALEX: [laughing]

PJ: I mean it’s like a nice… it’s nice if that were true. But it’s like, why don’t we shoot water guns at rainbows. Like if you did do that, first of all —

ALEX: Is that a phrase?

PJ: No. It’s just a stupid thing to do, much like this plan. Like, first of all, it won’t work. Like they won’t rise to the top of Google. Second of all, even if they did, there would still be a thing above them because that’s how ads work. And third of all, people aren’t using the service because of it’s, because they — they are using it because they think it’s real. The fact that your thing is cheaper… they’re not comparison shopping. And fourth of all, even if your dumb plan worked — no offense to your dumb plan — plenty of offense to your dumb plan — even if your dumb plan worked, then all he has to do is change it to LasVegasTaxiLostItems. He’s always going to be one step ahead of you because, like, the actual system is broken. Like this problem is not yours to solve.

ALEX: It’s an infrastructure issue.

PJ: That’s the boring version of what I just said, yes.

ALEX: Okay. Well, I didn’t like all the insults, but I liked it when you said I wasn’t a failure.

PJ: [laughing] The system’s a failure.

PJ: One thing I would like, that Google is never going to give us, is I would like to hear what scams like this people have run across. Because I have the sense that they’re pretty widespread, but there’s just no way to know.

ALEX: Alright. Well, we should ask our listeners, right?

PJ: Let’s set the parameters. If you have been looking for something on Google and gotten served an ad for something that seemed like a scam that was, like, taking advantage of what you were looking for, we would like to hear about it. If you have screenshots that’s even better.

ALEX: You can email us at: weirdads@gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com. That’s “weirdads@gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com.” And, uh, we might get in touch with you for a segment in the future.

PJ: Alright.

ALEX: Bye.

[CREDIT MUSIC ROLLS]

ALEX: If you’re ever in New York City and you lose something in a cab, call 311, or Google the Taxi and Limousine Commission website. They have a ton of resources there, and we’ll put those on our website and in the notes for this week’s episode.

And if you are in New York City and you think that you are the victim of deceptive or false advertising, you can file a complaint at the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs website.

Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. The show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos and Damiano Marchetti. Production assistance from Thane Fay. Our executive producer is Tim Howard. We were edited by Peter Clowney, and we were mixed by Rick Kwan. Special thanks this week to Michael Gartland.

Matt Lieber is the sound of your favorite person laughing.

Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can listen to the show on iTunes or any other podcast app. Thanks for listening — we’re taking next week off to do some reporting but we’ll see you in two weeks.

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