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Scam adverts included in major internet safety laws

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Written by:
09/03/2022
Campaigners have welcomed the move by the government to include paid-for scam adverts as part of the Online Safety Bill.

Under the bill, social media sites, websites, apps and other services hosting user-generated content or allowing people to talk to others online must remove and limit the spread of illegal and harmful content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material and suicide content.

The duty of care element to protect users also included ‘catfishing’ romance scams and fake market tips posted by people in images, comments or videos.

But it was criticised last year for failing to include online scams, prompting a coalition of organisations to write to the government urging it to include investment and pension scams in the bill.

And now, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) confirmed a new legal duty will be added to the bill requiring the largest and most popular social media platforms and search engines to prevent paid-for fraudulent adverts appearing on their services.

This will help combat fake ads, including where criminals impersonate celebrities or companies to steal people’s personal data, peddle dodgy financial investments or break into bank accounts.

The DCMS said companies will need to put in place “proportionate systems and processes” to prevent (or minimise in the case of search engines) the publication and/or hosting of fraudulent advertising on their service and remove it when they’re made aware of it.

As such, companies have to clamp down on ads with unlicensed financial promotions, fraudsters impersonating legitimate businesses and ads for fake companies. It includes ‘boosted’ social media posts by users which they pay to have promoted more widely.

The regulator Ofcom will set out further details on what platforms will need to do, but it could include making firms scan for scam adverts before they’re uploaded to their systems, checking the identity of those who want to publish advertisements, and ensuring financial promotions are only made by firms authorised by the City regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).

Ofcom will be able to fine companies up to £18m or 10% of their annual global turnover (whichever is higher) if they fail to take down harmful content. The regulator will also have the power to block access to sites.

Crucial first step

Culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, said: “We want to protect people from online scams and have heard the calls to strengthen our new internet safety laws. These changes to the upcoming Online Safety bill will help stop fraudsters conning people out of their hard-earned cash using fake online adverts.

“As technology revolutionises more and more of our lives the law must keep up. Today we are also announcing a review of the wider rules around online advertising to make sure industry practices are accountable, transparent and ethical – so people can trust what they see advertised and know fact from fiction.”

Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, whose face is among the most used by scammers in the UK, said: “I am thankful the government has listened to me and the huge numbers of other campaigners – across banks, insurers, consumer groups, charities, police and regulators – who’ve been desperate to ensure scam adverts are covered by the Online Safety Bill. We are amidst an epidemic of scam adverts. Scams don’t just destroy people’s finances – they hit their self-esteem, mental health and even leave some considering taking their own lives.

“The government now accepting the principle that scam adverts need to be included, and that firms who are paid to publish adverts need to be responsible for them, is a crucial first step. Until now, only user-generated scams were covered – which risked pushing more scam ads, incentivising criminals to shift strategy. Yet it is a complex area. Now we and others need to analyse all elements of this new part of the Bill, and work with government and parliament to close down the hiding places or gaps scammers can exploit.”

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