If you’re familiar with Minority Report, a sci-fi thriller about a police department that identifies criminals based on the foreknowledge provided by three psychics, then you could draw comparisons to the Google AdWords algorithm that brought down a ring of car thieves.
According to The Verge, the AdWords program enables Google to bring billions of targeted ads to its users. Although the majority of these ads are genuine, some are linked to phishing schemes and counterfeit items. Much like how an email’s spam filter operates, Google employs a computer algorithm to identify any ads that display shady behavior. However, when the program flagged seemingly harmless used-car ads as suspicious, the team believed a mistake was made.
Upon the initial flagging, the only logical explanation was that the vehicles were fake. Dismissing this idea, engineering director David Baker, said, “We’d never heard of a counterfeit car”. After digging a little deeper, the team uncovered a popular Chinese car scam. The criminals were taking pictures of regular cars parked on the street, and putting them up for sale online. When the customer went to make the payment a few days later, the scammers would break-in and steal the car, offering it up to the unknowing victim.
Although it might seem like common sense to request documentation such as the official car title and registration beforehand, the schemers are adept at talking their way out of these situations. “These people are very professional,” added Dahui Li, an information systems expert at the University of Minnesota.
So how did the computer spot the fraud before the experts? According to Baker, “there’s no one thing or even a handful of things.” The program aggregates thousands of pieces of information, such as the poster’s IP address, user age, and links to past accounts. Perhaps the biggest tipoff was that the high-priced transactions were occurring on relatively new accounts.
That being said, to the average person the car ads were completely innocuous, and it’s baffling that the Google software could identify such a big crime, especially one that largely took place offline.