Where is my stimulus check? Google serves up scams

Although most people have received their IRS stimulus checks, millions are still searching questions like, “Where is my stimulus check?” Unfortunately, not everything Google is serving up in response to that question is trustworthy. A recent investigation found that the search giant was showing scam ads in response to questions like, “Where is my stimulus check?”

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Scams in response to "Where is my stimulus check?"

The Tech Transparency Project conducted an investigation and found that data on search trends over the last three months indicated spikes for searches like "where is my stimulus check," "government check" and "claim stimulus money." However, the organization found that in dozens of cases, Google was targeting those queries with "questionable ads aimed at exploiting financially distressed people," it said.

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The ads uncovered by the Tech Transparency Project charge bogus fees supposedly for stimulus money. Some of the ads attempt to harvest users' personal data or install unwanted software into their web browsers.

The organization said many of the ads Google was serving up to queries like "where is my stimulus check" violate its own policies against fraudulent or misleading content. They also run against Google's public statements aimed at battling scams related to the coronavirus and relief efforts. In May, the company warned consumers that scammers were developing and launching new schemes "with alarming speed" just for the pandemic.

For example, one of the ads uncovered by the Tech Transparency Project charged a $34 "administration fee" to supposedly allow people to see how much their IRS stimulus check will be. The ad then promises to send users to the web page they need to visit in order to claim their stimulus check.

It's a total scam because most people don't need to do anything to claim your stimulus check. Those who do need to file something with the IRS should do so using the tool for non-filers here. The only way to track your stimulus check is with the IRS' Get My Payment tool here.

Google cashes in on stimulus-related ad spend

Searches for stimulus-related queries have skyrocketed over the last few months, and Google has been cashing in. The company has been selling targeted ads against those queries, and advertisers pay $1 to $2 every time someone clicks on their ads.

The Tech Transparency Project looked into the way it works by starting with a clean Google Chrome browser window and then searching 10 phrases related to the IRS stimulus checks. They were: "stimulus check," "IRS stimulus," "coronavirus stimulus," "where is my stimulus?" "coronavirus money," "where is my coronavirus money?," "claim stimulus money," "where is my covid money?"  "government check," and "where is my government money?"

The organization then took down all the ads that were displayed next to each page of results and looked into each link. Of the 126 ads they saw, over one-third seemed to violate Google's ad policies. The ads pushed scams aimed at collecting financial or personal information or installed software that hijacks browsers. Some ads redirected users to ad sites that were useless, while others pushed predatory financial "services."

The Tech Transparency Project placed the ads into five categories. The credit card scams category included ads that directed users to websites that ask them to enter their credit card information, supposedly in exchange for helping them claim their stimulus check. For one of the ads, no matter what information is entered, the page gives the same message telling them that they need to "fill out a simple form" to get their money. It then convinces people to enter their credit card information.

The second category is personal data scams, and the organization found eight ads in this category. The scams are designed to collect user information and use it for marketing. Clicking on any of those ads brings up a sign-up form for supposed financial services, but the organization wasn't able to find any of the promised services on the sites.

The organization identified five ads that hijack users' browsers, modify their settings without their permission, and route their web traffic through third-party servers that show more ads and mine user data. Some browser hijackers also sell the data to cyber-criminals.

It said many of the ads that appeared next to searches like "where is my stimulus check" direct users to "low-quality, third-party search sites" that make money by displaying targeted ads next to search results.

The fifth category is predatory financial services, and the organization saw at least seven ads in this category. Examples of these ads include online courses promising to help people make thousands of dollars through "vague, internet marketing jobs." Some ads link to loan marketing pages that imply some connection to the U.S. government.

The Tech Transparency Project added that the ads were often prominently displayed in Google's search results, sometimes even the first at the top of the list. The organization called into question the company's commitment to protecting people from scams.