A criminal investigation into mortgage swindlers has expanded beyond deceptive advertising on Google's internet search engine to root out con artists who were luring their victims on Bing and Yahoo too.
News of the widening probe confirmed that the internet's three largest search engines had been turned into tools of prey for criminals looking to fleece US homeowners scrambling to avoid repossession.
The scams involved online ads making bogus promises to help people hold on to their homes under a US government-backed programme to modify mortgage payments.
After finding their victims using ads triggered by phrases such as "stop foreclosure", the swindlers extracted upfront fees or arranged to have the mortgage payments sent them without providing any assistance. The ruses had become increasingly common.
The crackdown had closed 125 mortgage scams by Monday, up from 85 last week, when the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Programme announced it was cleaning up the misconduct on Google. The US Treasury Department division said many of the con artists bought ads on all three search engines.
The identities of the alleged swindlers have not been disclosed, partly because the criminal investigation is still ongoing. A spokesman for the agency steering the investigation declined to provide any further details.
Like Google, Microsoft's Bing search engine agreed to stop accepting adverts from hundreds of internet advertisers and agencies tied to the scams. The ban also applies to Yahoo, because it depends on Microsoft to sell its search advertising as part of a revenue-sharing partnership.
"Microsoft is committed to preventing fraud within its advertising network and online community and is working closely with the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Programme to help tackle the problem of fraudulent mortgage-modification advertising," the software maker said.
The mortgage scams are the latest example of marketing malfeasance on large internet advertising networks. Critics have complained the largely automated systems for buying adverts next to internet search results are vulnerable to abuse and that the companies running them are not doing enough to screen the marketing pitches before they appear on websites.
Consumer Watchdog, a group that published a study about mortgage ad scams nine months ago, is calling for criminal charges and financial penalties against the major search engines in the current investigation.