Back in June 2016, KrebsonSecurity wrote an exposé of various fake online reviews and sham websites, which pushed people seeking help for drug and alcohol addiction towards rehab centers that were secretly linked to the Church of Scientology. Krebs broke the story as part of a wider report on fake online reviews, warning people of the “countless real-world services that are primed for exploitation online” by marketers using misleading SEO techniques. Soon after the story broke in 2016, the network of bogus reviews that had been exposed disappeared from the Internet. However, Brian Krebs has now found that the original purveyor of these phantom sites and reviews is back.
In March 2018, a series of fake ads appeared on Craigslist offering $25/hour to people working from home to “help us with posting online”, pointing potential applicants to apply at seorehabs[dot]com. The tagline for the website describes itself as “Leaders in Addiction Recovery Consulting”, and says that job applicants can earn a minimum of $25 for simply generating individual Google for Business listings tied to treatment center names they are provided with.
Applicants who sign up are provided detailed instructions on how to navigate Google’s anti-abuse process for the creation of listings, which involves receiving a postcard in the mail from Google that contains a PIN to be entered into Google’s site before a listing can be created. “Assistants” are told they can use any U.S.-based street address when creating the new business listing, but warns them to create no more than two listings per street address. They are told to leave the phone number and website blank. Then they are told to choose a treatment center name from a wide selection of generic sounding names, such as “Lake Side Treatment” or “Serenity Addiction Recovery”.
In Krebs’ previous reporting, he demonstrated how a complex network of fake online reviews that steered Internet searches toward rehab centers funded by Scientologists was set up by a company called TopSeek Inc., which describes itself as a collection of “local marketing experts”. According to a LinkedIn profile for the company, its owner is John Harvey. A historic WHOIS search showed Krebs that the site seorehabs[dot]com was registered in Harvey and TopSeeks’s name in 2015 (current web site registration records obscure the information for the current owner of the site). Krebs says that Mr. Harvey did not respond to his request for comments.
TopSeek works with a variety of clients, including Narconon International, an organization that promotes the unorthodox ideas of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard related to substance abuse treatment and addiction.
According to its Wikipedia entry, Narconon operates several dozen residential centers worldwide, primarily in the U.S. and Western Europe. Hubbards’ writings (which are not medically accepted) underlie the program, which includes exercise, sauna treatment and the intake of high doses of vitamins. Several deaths have occurred at Narconon facilities, which have been linked to the lack of trained medical personnel on site.
Bryan Seely, a security expert who has reported widely on the use of fake search listings to perform online bait-and-switch scams, said the goal of sites like those that Seorehabs pays people to create is to funnel all interested parties to a small number of switchboards, which sell the leads to rehab centers that have paid for them. Many Rehab facilities will frequently pay hundreds of dollars for leads that could lead to a new patient.
“Mr. Harvey and TopSeek are crowdsourcing the data input for these fake rehab centers,” Seely said. “The phone numbers all go to just a few dedicated call centers, and it’s not hard to see why. The money is good in this game. He sells a call for $50-$100 at a minimum, and the call center then tries to sell that lead to a treatment facility that has agreed to buy leads. Each lead can be worth $5,000 to $10,000 for a patient who has good health insurance and signs up.”
Krebs advises people to be cautious about doing business with a company found online, particularly those which come first in the search listings. “Unfortunately”, he says, “that generally guarantees little more than the company is good at marketing”.