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Watchdog launches scam ad alert system

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Written by: Emma Lunn
17/06/2020
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is working with Facebook and Google to tackle bogus ads that leave consumers out of pocket.

A new scam ad alert system set up by the advertising watchdog aims to get online paid-for scam ads taken down across multiple platforms.

The system has been set up in response to concerns about online paid-for ads linking to fraudulent content, particularly crypto investment scams.

The ASA is working alongside the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB UK), the industry body for digital advertising, as well as search engines and social media sites.

The launch follows a three-month trial during which the ASA piloted a scheme that enabled it to alert platforms and publishers to paid-for scam ads online.

How the scam ad alert system works

Consumers can now report scam ads appearing in paid-for space online to the ASA using a form on the ASA website.

The ASA will then send an alert to all participating platforms with key details of the scam ad, or to publishers if the ad appeared on a publisher-owned site.

If they locate them, partners will remove the offending ad and suspend the advertiser’s account. In some instances they may also add them to blocklists.

Celebrity scams

Figures from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and Action Fraud found that in 2018/19 victims of crypto and forex investment scams lost a collective £27m.

Many scam ads use false stories or doctored images of celebrities, and misleadingly imply those celebrities have endorsed the service.

MoneySavingExpert.com founder Martin Lewis threatened to sue Facebook in 2018 over a series of ads that ran on its platform, falsely claiming he backed several investment schemes. He dropped the case in return for Facebook giving Citizens Advice £3m and agreeing to introduce a scam ads reporting button.

However, one flaw with the new system is that if people report via the ad itself, this information won’t automatically be shared with the ASA.

Far from perfect

The ASA admits the new system is “not a cure all” but says the scheme builds on existing measures that digital advertising and social media platforms already employ to stop scam ads appearing in the first place.

Guy Parker, ASA chief executive, said: “The overwhelming majority of ads responsibly inform and entertain their audience, but a small minority are published with criminal intent. Our Scam Ad Alert system will play an important part in helping detect and disrupt these types of scams. By working closely with our partners such as Google and Facebook we can act quickly to have problem ads taken down as part of our ongoing work to better protect consumers online.”

Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, said: “The UK has been plagued by scam ads online for years. Those that, like me, feel strongly about scam ads should take time to visit the ASA and report them, then you know it’ll share its intelligence with the major advertising platforms.

“Scammers are swift and clever. When you try to stop an ad, it becomes a game of whack-a-mole – as soon as it’s taken down, they resurface it in a slightly different variant and the whole dance starts again. That means the reporting process needs to be seamless and pacey.

“What we really need is a single, recognised, uniform reporting button on every online ad, that both notifies that platform, and if there is a sufficient volume of reports, notifies the ASA which can disseminate the information across the board.”

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