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Online scammers ‘running riot’ thanks to tech giants’ inaction

John Fitzsimons
Written By:
John Fitzsimons

Victims of scammers have lost £1.7bn over the last 12 months, new analysis from Which? has found.

According to the consumer champion, this works out at a whopping £3,234 lost to scams every minute over a troubled year, with the warning that the real figure is likely to be far higher as so many scams go unreported.

Which? argued that much of the growth in scam activity is down to scammers moving their tactics online. These can take all sorts of different forms too, from criminals pushing nonsense ‘get rich quick’ schemes on social media to fake finance firms promising eye-catchingly strong returns to savers and investors looking for a better return on their cash.

The firm pointed to its survey of investment scam victims, which found that while one in seven had been targeted by phone, this figure was dwarfed by those tricked through online methods, whether by email, search engine results, or adverts on social media.

While all too often the money lost to scammers is gone forever, last month the regulator revealed that more than £3m is to be repaid to victims of certain investment scams.

What are the tech firms doing?

The big tech firms have been strongly criticised for their role in these scams. Which? argued that while they claim to be taking strong action to crack down on fraud, the reality is that they have completely failed to get to grips with an “explosion” in fake and fraudulent adverts that take victims through to the scams.

The investigation highlighted that there are dozens of investment comparison sites which have already been subject of warnings from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), yet remain live. 

Which? pointed out that the likes of Google and Microsoft continue to make significant sums from adverts that lead to scams or that are posted by unauthorised businesses, and the fact that these remain active even from firms who have been subject to public warnings from regulators suggests there are considerable problems with the search engines’ monitoring processes.

The Which? study found that some shady investment sites have found an easy way to continue operating, simply by changing their web addresses and then re-advertising on a search engine. Which? found that one company has repeatedly used this tactic, having been linked to 28 separate sites on the FCA’s warning list.

The warning list itself doesn’t seem to be very effective either. The list is designed to highlight firms who are suspected of running an investment scam, and the size of the list has grown significantly from 573 in 2019 to 1,184 last year.

However, less than a third (29%) of investors have even heard of it, according to the investigation.

Taking real action

The government has already come under fire over its Online Safety Bill, and the fact that online scams are not included within the proposed legislation. In fact Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert, described the omission as “embarrassing”.

Which? has added its voice to this particular criticism, arguing that its findings are evidence that the government must revise the bill, as well as handing online platforms like Google and Bing the legal responsibility for preventing these fake and fraudulent sites from appearing on their search engines.

Gareth Shaw, head of money at Which?, said that record-low saving rates was pushing more people to search for investments online, just as fraudsters were moving their activities online, creating a “perfect storm” for scams.

He continued: “Which? has launched a free scam alert service to help consumers spot the latest tactics used by fraudsters, but tech giants, banks, regulators and the government must all step up and do much more to stop victims from facing the devastating consequences of scams.

“Scams must be included in the proposed Online Safety Bill so that online platforms have legal responsibility for preventing fake and fraudulent content posted by scammers from appearing on their sites, and are forced to do more to protect their users.”