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How Google is getting gamed in the fight both for and against the Church of Scientology

SciGoogle

 
Bryan Seely contacted us recently saying that he’d found some really interesting things about the way Google Maps was being manipulated to benefit Scientology’s drug rehab program, Narconon. Bryan is a fascinating character. He’s a “white hat” hacker, who uses his hacking abilities to help corporations understand where they’re vulnerable. And his work on Google Maps is well known — he showed how gaming Google Maps could be used to intercept calls intended for the FBI. Wow.

Anyway, he told us that he’d happened on what looked like a major scam — shady websites were being used to send the unsuspecting to Narconon when they were looking for drug rehabs.

We told him that at least part of that story has been around a long time. Four years ago, for example, we revealed that Lucas Catton, a former president of Scientology’s flagship drug rehab in Oklahoma, Narconon Arrowhead, had decided to come forward to expose Narconon’s deceptive business practices. And those practices included fake referral websites preying on unsuspecting parents desperate to find a rehab for their son or daughter, often on the orders of a criminal court.

Catton said he knew about how those websites operated, because he’d operated several himself…

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The websites are designed to be as generic as possible, saying nothing about Scientology, and they are created to capture people searching online for information about rehab centers. Convincing people who call in for more information to send someone to a Narconon center then earns that referrer a commission, typically ten percent of the $30,000 Narconon centers charge.

“I had a couple of dozen websites, some people have many more than that,” he says. “They’re basically unbranded websites for attracting people looking for some kind of drug treatment help. We had people manning the phone lines. And the whole pitch was to get them over to Narconon.”

He adds that he would help people find non-Scientology treatment programs as well. “Did I make most of my money for Narconon? Yes, of course I did.”

The people behind such websites have scripts all written out for them that help them push people to Narconon. We published examples from those scripts after some of them managed to get leaked out.

Now, what Seely, the ethical hacker, has added to that story, and which was explained beautifully at an excellent post by Brian Krebs at his Krebs on Security website, is that Google Maps is being gamed with fake customer reviews in order to direct as many people as possible to those bogus Narconon referral websites.

Seely and Krebs managed to flush out a Hawaiian operator named John Harvey who had posted bogus 5-star reviews at Google Maps for 82 phantom drug centers in an attempt to direct people to Narconon referral websites. Once he was contacted by Krebs, Harvey yanked them all down.

Seely was really invigorated by his investigation, and tells us he’s going to continue to look into ways that Scientology or its front groups are manipulating Google with fake reviews.

We look forward to seeing what he comes up with. On the other hand, however, Scientology’s critics have also found a way to game Google Maps for their battle.

William Drummond, a former Scientologist who lives in England, has been working hard to make the public in Plymouth, the coastal city in England, aware that Scientology is trying to raise funds for an Ideal Org there. And as part of his protest, he discovered something really amusing about Google Maps.

Drummond tells us he noticed that a user can post images to Google Maps. Usually, this results in tourists, for example, posting their photos of local attractions for those using Google to find out what a place is like. Drummond, however, decided to try posting some images critical of Scientology to the Google Maps listing for the local Church of Scientology in Plymouth.

To his surprise, he found that the images he posted soon dominated the Google Maps listing. One of the images he posted for the Plymouth org, for example, was one of him giving a talk on Scientology’s controversies…

 
DrummondPlymouth

 
Drummond further realized that he could post similar images to Scientology churches around the world. And sure enough, those images are also shown prominently and have so far garnered more than 60,000 views.

The problem is so bad for Scientology, commenter Once Born, at his Scientology media and books website, explained that Scientology panicked and had at least a couple of orgs change their status on Google Maps to “permanently closed.” If they thought that would make the critical images go away, they were mistaken.

We asked Seely why he thought Scientology couldn’t simply complain to Google Maps and have the images pulled down. He explained that the staff at Google Maps is tiny, and it’s hopelessly buried under requests around the world. Even if a request to take down images was legitimate (and that’s a question here), it could take months for the website to get to it.

So, in the meantime, Drummond keeps posting more images, and they’re getting seen.

If Google Maps is easily manipulated — both for and against the interests of Scientology — what about Google itself? We’ve reported in the past that Scientology says it’s received millions of dollars in free advertising from Google in the form of grants.

According to Scientology’s Brandy Harrison, in a speech she gave in 2014, Google has a separate team just to help Scientology with its advertising, and was giving Scientology $10,000 in free ads every month.

Seely told us he’s going to look into that, as well.

 
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Jeffrey Augustine: Mark Fisher on DM’s coup

Says Jeff: “In this podcast Mark Fisher — David Miscavige’s former assistant for many years at the Corporate Liaison Office and later RTC — discusses how L. Ron Hubbard never appointed David Miscavige as his successor. Instead, Author Services Inc. was the privately-owned for-profit company David Miscavige used to stage a palace coup to take over RTC after the death of L. Ron Hubbard.”

 

 
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Bonus items from our tipsters

New Mexico’s Republican candidate for secretary of state, Nora Espinoza, is getting an earful from the press there for her happy endorsement of Citizens Commission on Human Rights, Scientology’s unhinged front group that goes after the psychiatric profession. Espinoza, a member of New Mexico’s House of Representatives, may end up regretting that she appeared in this video from Scientology…

 

 
Hey, girls.

 
SciTampa12

 
Scientology isn’t only staring contests. We do clay, too.

 
SciClay

 
Scientology! The whitest coolest religion on Earth!

 
SciCoolest2

 
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3D-UnbreakablePosted by Tony Ortega on June 28, 2016 at 07:00

E-mail tips and story ideas to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information about the book, and our 2015 book tour, can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts

Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield

 

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