Update: This article was updated on February 25, 2022
Recently, the Federal Trade Commission published a warning about scam websites that target low-income persons seeking Section 8 affordable housing assistance. These scammers are looking to sell your information to advertisers, make you pay for free information or even worse, steal your identity. The deceptive websites that are prominently displayed on Google’s search results pages prey on unsuspecting persons who think they are applying for legitimate housing assistance.
Several scammers use Google’s AdWords ad program to attract Google users to fake Section 8 applications, which collect personal information (contact, financial, medical, etc.). These scammers then sell that data to spam marketers of credit reports, criminal background checks, medications, online training and other spam offers.
While this type of scam does not typically collect social security numbers and is not attempting to steal identities, it does fill a victim’s inbox with spam. However, the greatest damage of this scam is fooling people into thinking they have applied for housing assistance, when they have not.
Technically, these webmasters aren’t violating the law, since users are freely providing the information in a web form. But the way in which they trick users to complete the web forms is unethical, and clearly violates Google’s Advertiser Terms of Service.
We’ll show you how to identify these scams and report them to Google. If enough people report these advertisers, Google will remove the ads and ban the advertisers from their service.
What does a Section 8 Application scam look like?
The scam usually starts with a Google ad with the title “Section 8 (Apply Now)” or “Apply for Section 8 Online.” Many less experienced web users don’t know the difference between an advertisement phishing for personal information, and an official link to a Section 8 application.
This ad will take the searcher to a form that seems to be from an authentic housing authority. The web page will include details about the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, but the named housing authority or organization usually does not exist.
For example, when we click this scam ad above, the web page says that the Housing Choice Voucher program is “administered locally by the Maryland Public housing authority (PHA) which has offices across the state of Maryland.” There is no such thing as the “Maryland Public Housing Authority” and the program is administered in a localized manner, not statewide as the web page leads one to believe. Furthermore, grammatical errors such as not capitalizing “housing authority” can give users hints that the web page is not legitimate.
Supposed applicants fill out the fake forms, which ask for contact information. Further into the process, theses scammers ask questions you will never find on a Section 8 application, such as, “Would you like to apply for a free credit score?” and “Does anyone in your household have diabetes?” The more questions of this nature you answer, the more spam messages you will receive.
How are these ads in violation of Google’s advertising policies?
Although these ads constantly appear on Google’s search results, they are against Google’s AdWords Terms of Service, and if this issue is brought to Google’s attention, it will likely remove these false advertisements from its search pages.
We will walk you through how to file a complaint against these advertisers with Google. Please share this how-to article with your friends and ask them to file a complaint as well. The more complaints that are filed, the more likely the scam ads are to be removed.
In Google’s AdWords policies, it describes three prohibited practices and these ads violate all three. They are:
1. “Abuse of the ad network”
Google prohibits ads for, “sites that offer little unique value to users and are focused primarily on traffic generation” Ads such as the one above have the sole purpose of attracting the user to a site that offers no value to the user and simply collects their personal information for the gain of the web publisher.
2. “Misrepresentation of self, product, or service”
Google says, “Concealing or misstating information about the business, product or service” is considered a serious violation of its policies. Related examples include “Enticing users to part with money or information under false or unclear pretenses; presenting a false identity, business name, or contact information; sites that are ‘phishing’ for users’ information.” Clearly, these fake Section 8 application sites are enticing users under false or unclear pretenses, faking business names and posing as legitimate housing authorities.
3. “Irresponsible data collection & use”
According to Google, “Using personal information in ways that users have not consented to” is another violation. These fake Section 8 application sites earn their income by selling users names, phone numbers, email addresses, health information and income details. Clearly, they are collecting data irresponsibly.
How to file a complaint with Google
Fortunately, Google provides a simple way to report violators. We will walk you through the process below. It will only take a few minutes to complete.
1. Go to Google’s Feedback on AdWords Ads page: https://support.google.com/adwords/troubleshooter/4578507?rd=1
2. To report an ad, click the second bubble that says “An ad violates other AdWords policies.”
3. A list will appear, first asking you for your email address. Enter your email.
4. After the email box, Google asks, “Which policy is this ad violating?” Click the bubble underneath that question named “Misleading Advertiser Claims.”
5. Scroll down to the question, “What type of ad do you have feedback on?” and click the “Text/Image Ad” bubble.
6. New text will pop up, informing you on how to locate the violating ad’s web address. Google provides a step by step process to identify the web address, and we have pointed out the process out in the image below. For convenience, we have done the research for you and provided details for five ads that are currently being displayed in Google that violate Google’s ad policies. The table at the end of this article contains the details for all five offending ads we have found.
7. Copy the web address of the advertisement.
8. Paste the web address provided into the text box directly under the instructions that pop up. Please note that the full link is needed to be submitted. For this example, we are using the web address below:
9. Now, Google asks for the “URL of the web page the ad takes you to when clicked.” It is important to type or copy and paste the web address of the same website that was submitted in the previous text box. For this example, the link location we used above directs us to this URL:
10. Finally, Google will ask for additional context to accompany the report. This is helpful, as it provides a specific reason why the ad violates their policies. If you do not want to type your own explanation, you can use the following text:
This web page makes it appear that you are filling out a form to apply for Section 8 housing. The form is fake, this company is not affiliated with any legitimate housing agency, and the user information given in this form is used to be sold to advertisers who send spam mail.
11. Once the form is complete, click the blue “SUBMIT” button.
12. So we can rid the internet of all of these violators, please repeat these easy steps for each link we provided in the table below. Each complaint that is submitted will add to the legitimacy of the claim, and Google will act faster to remove these ads if they are reported multiple times.
However, this type of scam that collect personal info is not the only kind of Section 8 application scam out there. In our next how to article, we’ll single out a scam that is charging unsuspecting Section 8 applicants a fee to apply. We’ll go into detail about how the scam works and recommend ways to stop it. [UPDATE: You can read this article here.]