Did you know someone can be stealing your business and internet traffic even if you don’t have a website?  Many Hawaii businesses have recently discovered they are victims of a new kind of theft, local business listing hijacking.

With the increasing popularity of the Internet there have been many new opportunities and resources for businesses to market their services. This has also created opportunities for thieves who have discovered ways of using these resources to steal traffic and sales from other businesses. “We have an alarming new trend where competitors steal or claim online business listings of another company and direct traffic to their own websites,” a Hawaii social media marketing expert has warned.

Daniela Stolfi, co-owner and specialist for the interactive marketing firm BOSS Hawaii, says “We have recently seen a major increase in Online business listing hijacking not only from competitors, but in some cases even a companies own employees. And the scariest thing is that you don’t even have to have a website to be hijacked. In fact you are more a target for not having a website.”

There are many online marketing resources for businesses to utilize. The most popular is search engine local listings and map listings which is websites version of the yellow pages. Google, Bing, and Yahoo allows businesses to take ownership of the listings, and this allows a business to show up in search results with a map next to it. There are also countless websites offering free directory listings with links free that do not check to see if the person submitting the information is authorized to do so.

Stolfi explains that your business can log in and either create or change a business listing with details about their business.

“The problem is that a competitor, or even someone with malicious intent, look for for people who have not claimed their listings as an opportunity to claim the listing as their own, update the contact details to their own business and take traffic to a competitor’s website. So if someone finds your business online and clicks the link, it would go to the thieves website.”

These thieves are getting very clever Stolfi explains. “Even the ones we have caught and have fixed have found new ways to continue.” For instance, Stolfi’s company recently discovered that someone had hijacked the local listings on Bing for one of their clients, a popular Hawaii hotel chain. “It was pretty clever. The hijacker created a wholesale account through Expedia  where you can make a commission on hotel bookings and redirected the traffic for our clients hotels to their expedia account. Someone looking to book at the hotel, click the book now button and was led to this expedia account. The customer is able to book the room so nothing seems wrong. But instead of it going to the hotels booking link, it went through the thieves wholesale account where they make a commission ranging from $3-75 per booking. And, because it is going through a 3rd party, there is no way to track who it was. It could have been a competitor, it could be an employee. There was no way to know. And because the way the system is, it took weeks for us to change it back.”

Other situations can involve employees. An employee has access to the mail and phone where they can receive the pin numbers required to claim listings. Companies whose owners and managers either do not utilize internet marketing or who do not have websites are at a greater risk. “We recently were hired by a client to design a website and assist with a supporting social media campaign. The office manager was really very hostile to us and clearly not happy about us being there. We weren’t sure why at first. But as we started building the campaign we discovered that they already had listings all over the web directing to a website. After investigating we discovered the employee created a website and unlisted url and directed all the traffic to her own website.”

The most disturbing thing is, companies that don’t even have websites can be victims and in fact are even more susceptible because they have no web presence, giving the thief even more control. Because of the opportunities to become wholesellers or reseller for a business, the thief can make a very good living doing this anonymously with no cost, no inventory, no legitimate business or no knowledge even of the industry with very little work involved. “Think about it. You can become a reseller for Amazon, art, baby products, hosting services, just about any business you can think of. A thief only need go out and create free reseller accounts then go and claim local listings for popular businesses selling those products, especially those who don’t even have websites. The are using your company to make money. They just sit there collecting commission checks. Even if the company figures it out, there is no way to catch them and it takes weeks sometimes months to fix the listings!”

Thieves are taking advantage of the companies who are not aware or not monitoring these listings. This trend of hijacking listings is so new that not even the companies offering the listing services have been able to keep up with ways to prevent it from happening. Until they do it is very important that businesses become proactive and learn how to monitor it. Businesses need to keep checking listings on the web regarding their business and make sure they are up-to-date. “If not”, Stolfi says, “vital traffic and sales could be lost. One client whose listings we reclaimed tracked over $100,000 in internet sales in the first 3 months we fixed it just from Bing, Google and Yahoo. The hijacker was most likely making up to 30% of that for close to a year. So the loss you can suffer is pretty significant.”

Unfortunately, Stolfi says many do not know they have been hijacked.  Unless you have someone monitoring this, businesses may not recognize it until a customer notifies them of the attack, or if an employee happens across the listing by mistake. And because there are so many places that offer listings, it becomes a challenge of finding out what other listings the thief has claimed.  “Besides that, they are becoming more and more clever as people catch on.  If they were making money off your business, they will find a way to do it again.”

There’s no real way of it being stopped at this point, once your listing has been hijacked it’s very difficult to get it back. The only way to prevent and reverse it is to either hire an interactive marketing firm like BOSS who offers this service. “What we do is we go and claim all these listings for our clients and we create listings using up to 1000 directory websites. Establishing this presence removes you as a target not to mention increases your ranking and traffic.”

For small businesses that do not have the budget for this service, you can do this yourself Stolfi points out, by going in early and claiming and creating your own listings. Then keep an eye on your listings from time to time, click on the links and make sure they go to your website. If you aren’t tracking your website traffic, you need to. Set up Google alerts . There are also sites like Alexa.com where you see incoming and outgoing links so if you find someone has hijacked you, track their website and see what other sites have a link to see where else they may be listing. If you have been hijacked, you can contact the webmaster and request the listing be reverted back.

“The internet is a useful tool for businesses and there is money to be made.  But unfortunately with that comes opportunists.  For the business whose owners are not tech savvy they find themselves up against rings of tech savvy thieves who on a bad day are making $10,000 a day.  It is crucial you have an interactive marketing person or firm on your team.  Otherwise, you leave yourself open to becoming a victim.”

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Malia Zimmerman is the editor and co-founder of Hawaii Reporter. She has worked as a consultant and contributor to several dozen media outlets including ABC 20/20, FOX News, MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal, UPI and the Washington Times. Malia has been listed as one of the nation’s top "Web Proficients, Virtuosi, and Masters" and "Hawaii's new media thought leader" by http://www.thewebstersdictionary.com Reach her at Malia@hawaiireporter.com