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Google crackdown on exploitative debt service ads

Written by: Emma Lunn
The search engine will restrict debt services advertising to firms meeting new accreditation standards.

Google is clamping down on paid-for debt advice firms masquerading as free debt charities in a bid to protect vulnerable people with money problems.

Following a campaign by StepChange Debt Charity, which drew attention to the misleading advertisers impersonating reputable debt charities, Google has committed to restricting debt services advertising solely to firms meeting accreditation standards. From mid-November, debt advice adverts will be subject to an application and approval process.

StepChange has welcomed the move and is urging other digital advertising platforms to adopt a similar approach.

Lead generation firms

The clampdown will target unregulated lead generation firms and third party intermediaries which sell leads to the highest bidder. These firms have been advertising using search terms that would typically be used by people searching online for reputable debt charities. For the unwary, this has proved to be a trap.

Google is now introducing a system under which only certain types of organisations will be allowed to advertise debt services on its platform. If an organisation does not have relevant FCA authorisation or does not have regulated Insolvency Practitioner status, it will no longer be allowed to advertise in this way.

Matthew Lavine, product policy specialist at Google, said: “We are delighted to be able to implement this global policy which we believe will provide further protections for vulnerable users who come to Google for information on how to remedy their debt or credit problems. This is the culmination of extensive work by our policy teams globally and we have listened to and consulted with debt advice charities and other organisations whose users will benefit from this policy.”

Misleading advertising

StepChange has been at the forefront of a campaign to stamp out the impersonators. It claims people have been actively misled – believing that they were dealing with a reputable debt charity when, in fact, their details were being harvested by lead generator firms receiving payments from commercial firms often seeking to sell insolvency debt solutions or other financial products.

Since the beginning of 2019, StepChange has reported 83 instances of misleading advertising to search engines, on top of the 46 reported in 2018.

While these complaints were all upheld and the offending advertising removed, all too often the firms involved simply tweaked and reworked their advertising and were able to continue targeting people in debt. Under the new system, this should become much more difficult for them to do.

Richard Lane, StepChange director of external affairs, said: “The rise in misleading advertisers targeting financially vulnerable people has resulted in numerous cases of people thinking they have been dealing with StepChange or other reputable debt charities when they have not. Action to restrict these advertising activities is very welcome.

“Now that Google has taken the first step, we would urge all digital platforms who accept advertising for debt services to consider their own approach. These impersonator firms tend to be highly opportunistic and adaptable and it would be very unfortunate if they were displaced from Google only to exploit other alternative channels instead.

“It’s still important for the financial and advertising regulators to take action, and for people needing help to be aware and to be vigilant about the risk of impersonators.”

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