The Pin Is Mightier

Why it’s so satisfying to find—and make—fake locations in Google Maps.

Photo illustration of Google Maps pins across the D.C./Maryland/Virginia region spelling out the word "FAKE."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus and Google Maps.

A friend of mine, an attorney at a nonprofit legal agency, was following up on a case for a client she’d met at a small-claims clinic the day before. As she used Google Maps to search for an address the client had provided, she noticed a featured pin for a nearby “lodge” with a peculiar name: “Balls deep in the bullshit.”

She sent a screenshot of it to a group chat we’re in. “Amazing,” replied my friend’s husband. “Fantastic,” said another friend. “It gets even better if you zoom out and see it’s located next to the community of Penile,” remarked a third member of the group.

That was enough for me to look up the location myself. There it was, next to Penile, a neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. When you click on the pin in question, there’s an address listed, but the phone number is just the local area code followed by 555-5555. There are no photos and no reviews. While I was typing “Balls deep” into the Maps search box, I also got a hit for a “Balls Deep Gym” in Georgia. Again, no photos, no reviews, and this time no number. A Google search for this gym brought up no matches.

By this point, I was indeed balls deep in the bullshit. I looked for other joke Google Maps locations. In Seattle, there’s a “nightclub” called the Grind Zone, which appears to just be an inside joke. (“GRIND ZONE BAY BAYYYYY!!!” reads one of its two reviews.) The photo is of an impressively long grinder sandwich.

Similar to the Grind Zone is the Tonfuku Seed House, which is listed as a restaurant in Los Angeles but appears to just be someone’s house. My friend Monica said she found it while looking for places to eat near her parents’ place and was really excited about what sounded like a ramen spot. But the photo is of hot dogs, and one of its reviews claims “you’ll go hot dog for this stuff.” Plus, tonfuku seeds are not a real thing.

If you search in Google Maps for “Big Dick,” you’ll find a random spot in Kelliher, Minnesota. Someone’s created a fake snowboard shop called “Edward’s Snow Den” located in the Secret Intelligence Service’s London headquarters. (Edward Snowden’s face, of course, is the main photo.) When you search for “Hell on earth,” Google results point to a street in Birmingham, England; the DMV in Plano, Texas; and a Catholic school in Stevenage, England. Schools are a popular fake location target, especially for Fortnite fans; one school in Belgium comes up if you search “Free V-Bucks” (V-bucks are the Fortnite in-game currency), a Missouri school was changed to “guys how do i get john wick fortnite” (a reference to a popular skin in the game), and another in Albuquerque, New Mexico, appears as “Fortnite Gamer Land of GAMERS.”

In theory, anyone can create a new Google location. Given how often new businesses open or offices move, any real-time city map could be improved by crowdsourcing. If you right-click on any spot on Google Maps, the site provides options to add a new business or a missing place. The language on Google’s forms and tutorials suggest that submissions are vetted: “We may take some time to review the information before updates are made,” the company writes.

But based on recent reports, it’s clearly not hard to pull a fast one on Google. In June, the Wall Street Journal reported on the millions of sham business listings on Google Maps. Some businesses are simply faking their locations; others edit established businesses’ info to redirect calls to themselves in the hopes of stealing their customers. “A search for plumbers in a swath of New York City found 13 false addresses out of the top 20 Google search results. Only two of the 20 are located where they say and accept customers at their listed addresses, requirements for pushpin listings on Google Maps,” the Journal reported.

Unlike Maps scammers, “Balls deep” and the disgruntled patron who listed the DMV as “hell” have nothing to gain from adding a fake place and are likely not as motivated as scammers to intentionally dupe the system. It appears that some people create these places just to see if they can get away with it; one Redditor created a “blood donation center” in honor of a character from a manga, and this Dallas restaurant reviewer exercised his “God-like power” to open and close a series of fake restaurants in his city. Getting your fake place listed alongside legitimate landmarks and businesses is exactly the kind of thing I would’ve delighted in as a teenager: a little reminder that the world is full of glitches and loopholes, and that you have just the tiniest amount of power to create a tiny (and mostly harmless) amount of chaos.

It’s chaos that Google appears hard-pressed to stop. In a June 2019 blog post, the company says it took down 3 million fake business profiles in 2018, around 85 percent of which were flagged by internal systems, and 90 percent of which were removed before users could see them. Google did not provide statistics on how many new businesses get added a year, or how many listings appear on Google Maps, but given that the service includes data from 220 countries, 3 million listings is likely a drop in the bucket. A Google spokesperson says the company has a team dedicated to Maps fraud, and has “strict policies in place” to detect fraud through “manual and automated systems,” but declined to reveal further details “so as not to tip off spammer or others with bad intent.”

Fake places aside, there are other gaps in Google Maps’ vetting. While its policies prohibit “rental or for-sale properties such as vacation homes, model homes, or vacant apartments”—imagine how chaotic Google Maps would look littered with Airbnbs—yet there are several listed close to my home. “Really great vacation home,” reads one of the reviews. As a user, I could care less whether those listings appear on Google Maps, and I’d be unlikely to report it. And unless Googlers are manually combing through each city’s listings, it’s next to impossible that it would seem suspicious.

Compared to scammers offering fraudulent services, these oversights are small potatoes. But they do illustrate how hard it can be for Google or any other tech giant—to monitor a huge amount of heavily crowdsourced data, and how easy it can be for users to exploit that vulnerability. In the meantime, though, these little easter eggs scattered across Google Maps are a simple joy and a testament to the vast silliness, creativity, and boredom in all corners of the world.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.