It’s such a common term that it’s now in the dictionary.
Are you looking for answers to your daily questions? Just “Google it” or search on your favorite internet browser to find what you need.
These days, however, consumers need to be wary and ask themselves: is the company on the other end of that search result really who they claim to be?
A Naperville couple thought they could trust their search results, but then found themselves in the hole for hundreds of dollars.
And as NBC 5 Responds discovered, they’re not alone.
The main takeaway from all of this is that many who surf and search using the world’s most popular search engine, Google, have a hard time discerning advertisements from organic search results.
And in at least one case, the ad was sneakily presented as a legitimate search result, misrepresenting the company’s true intentions, a Google spokesperson confirmed to NBC 5.
For Ed and Rosanne Slanina in Naperville, the headache started with a planned trip last February to see their grandchildren in South Carolina.
Shortly after booking their tickets on United Airlines, Ed Slanina says he realized they had forgotten a seat for a very important passenger: his golf clubs.
“I have golf clubs, so I’m like, ‘We can’t do it like that!'” Ed Slanina said.
Bringing their clubs meant the couple needed a ‘Basic Economy’ ticket upgrade, so they pulled out their phones and Googled ‘United Airlines’.
One of the top search results for United Airlines included a call button to reach the airline directly.
Ed Slanina says his wife did the research.
“She said, ‘OK, here’s United’s number’,” Ed recalled. “So we used her phone to call.”
The agent on the other end of that call upgraded his tickets, adding extra baggage to his reservation. Throughout the call, Ed said he had a strange feeling, wondering if he was in contact with the real United Airlines.
But Ed says the agent insisted he was talking to the right agent at United Airlines.
“I asked, ‘Now you work for United Airlines, don’t you? “, Ed Slanina said. “And he says, ‘Yes, I work for United.'”
At the end of the call, the agent said something odd that Ed said confused him.
“At the very end, he says, ‘Don’t rush to (watch) your [credit card] fresh, you’re not going to understand everything there.
The agent was right, there was a charge on Ed’s bank statement that made no sense, from a company that neither Ed nor his wife had ever heard of.
In addition to the $190 charge for extra baggage, Ed said there was a $454 charge for a company called Virago Travels.
While Ed and his wife thought they had called United Airlines directly, it turns out they had connected with an independent travel agency and agent instead.
It all goes back to that initial Google search for United Airlines and the call button Ed’s wife clicked. The couple had probably missed a crucial little word in this search result: “Announcement”.
Bought to appear at the top of a Google search results page for United Airlines, Virago Travels had bought an ad that claimed to be the official main airline, a Google spokesperson would later confirm for NBC 5.
The Naperville couple have company a few thousand miles to the west.
In the California Bay Area, Alice Klein told our partners at NBC Bay Area Responds that she, too, Googled “United Airlines” and unknowingly connected to Virago Travels, which cost her thousands of dollars.
“It was $2,000 or $3,000 more, and I didn’t realize until later that I hadn’t spoken with United Airlines,” Klein told NBC Bay Area.
Klein had contacted United Airlines to correct a misspelling of a passenger’s name on the reservation she made the day before, a request that normally wouldn’t cost a dime.
With Virago Travels, Klein was billed $3,906.52.
“It just seemed unreal that this could happen,” Klein said.
Virago Travels is a licensed travel agency registered in a gated community residence in Fremont, CA.
When NBC Bay Area Responds contacted Virago Travels, a spokesperson first asked for more details about Slanina and Klein’s cases. Then the company stopped returning our calls for comment.
Virago Travels has an “F” rating with the Better Business Bureau, and lists of customer complaints to match, all claiming the same types of issues and, in some cases, involving airlines other than United. In some of the complaints, the Google call button is a common thread.
United Airlines told NBC 5 that Virago Travels should never have changed Slanina’s or Klein’s reservations, but instead the travel company should have referred the two passengers to the real United Airlines.
After sharing NBC 5’s searches for Virago Travels with Google, a spokesperson for the popular search engine discovered that the travel company had violated Google’s terms when it purchased advertised search results.
“Upon review, we have found that the advertisements in question violate our misrepresentation policies,” a Google spokesperson wrote via email. “These ads have been removed.”
Google users are not off the hook, however, as the company points out: “Consumers should clearly read all information on the listing before clicking a call button.”
If the results of your research make you suspicious, the researchers confirm those suspicions.
“The normal distinction between normal and organic Google ads and results is hard to see,” said web researcher Henk Van Ess.
Ess demonstrates this in a 2018 UK survey in Varn which found that more than half of Google users surveyed did not recognize paid advertisements when they appeared in their search results.
And if a user doesn’t make this distinction, they may trust the search result and not realize that a company paid a lot of money to see what they see.
“If you think it’s from Google, you’re going to trust it,” Ess said. “If you know, ‘Oh no, it’s an advertisement,’ you’ll probably be a little more critical and more specific in your judgment.”
The simplicity of putting in a few words and scrolling through the results now requires one more crucial step: closer scrutiny.
“Uninvited guests want to throw a party, and the party is called Google,” Ess said.
For Ed Slanina, when he found out about Virago Travel’s accusations, he disputed it with his bank, Citibank, but bank officials denied his appeal.
After NBC Bay Area shared with Citibank what we discovered, Citibank reversed course and returned all of Ed’s money.
Alice Klein was also able to get her money back.
Klein and Slanina say they will never use Google the same way again.
“There should be some sort of backup,” said Ed Slanina, delighted that the Virago ads were removed. “It’s one thing to say you work with United, but you can’t say you are United.”
Do you have a consumer complaint? Call 1-844-NBC-RESP or click here to let us know so we can help you.