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Scam Holly Willoughby ad saw victim lose £370k

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Fraudsters trading on fake celebrity endorsements stole millions of pounds from unwitting individuals last year, with one person handing over £370,000 to a cryptocurrency investment scammer.

An advert on social media platform Facebook featuring Holly Willoughby and Philip Schofield claimed to be a legitimate investment offer, leading to the victim transferring the record loss in several payments.

NatWest’s annual celebrity scam super league table revealed MoneySavingExpert founder Martin Lewis’s name was also taken in vain, with the highest value case featuring the well-known TV presenter last year seeing one individual hand over £317,000 in a fake “Bitcoin Evolution” investment scam.

The bank’s study suggested Instagram is the most exploited platform criminals use to push fake adverts, with the number of scam ads on Facebook and Snapchat following closely.

Cryptocurrency scams are increasingly claiming false celebrity endorsement to attract attention online, with the top seven highest value cases all claiming to offer investment opportunities in various digital currencies.

Criminals are also exploiting crypto exchanges by offering to operate the account on behalf of unsuspecting members of the public, they then use this as an opportunity to syphon off the funds into their own accounts, NatWest said.

Because cryptocurrency isn’t protected by the UK’s Financial Services Compensation Scheme and most exchanges aren’t regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, it means victims are less able to check whether an advert is legitimate.

Other celebrities whose identities are regularly used without their knowledge or consent to con people into parting with their cash include well-known business leaders such as Dragons’ Den’s Deborah Meadon, Richard Branson, as well as popular TV personalities, Piers Morgan, and Gordon Ramsey.

NatWest’s Stuart Skinner, said: “Fraud is surging in the UK, the most powerful tool we all have in defeating these criminals is knowledge. In knowing that criminals are exploiting the images of celebrities we can all take steps to protect ourselves.”

He urged people to take five minutes to consider how likely an ad promising large profit, high rates of return and/or offering to help you invest in cryptocurrency is to be a scam, adding: “If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

Social engineering tactics

A report published in June by UK Finance showed that while the banking industry prevented £1.4bn of unauthorised fraud in 2021, criminals successfully stole over £1.3bn through both authorised and unauthorised fraud last year.

Among the most “pernicious and prevalent” frauds recorded last year were bank employee impersonation, romance and investment scams.

The report stated: “Criminals’ use of social engineering tactics through deception and impersonation scams is a key driver of authorised push payment scams and the use of social engineering tactics to defraud people has only increased during the pandemic.

“Typically, such deception and impersonation scams involve the criminal posing as a genuine individual or organisation and contacting the victim using a range of methods including via the telephone, email and text message. Criminals also use social media to approach victims, using adverts for goods and investments which never materialise once the payment has been made.”

The latest fraud numbers come just days after the government dropped the long-awaited Online Safety Bill, which was scheduled to pass into law before the summer Parliament recess.

Rumours are now circulating that key clauses could be axed from the bill in the autumn, specifically rules to force social media, apps, websites and search platforms to screen content and limit users’ exposure where it is illegal or considered harmful.

These proposals were added to the bill in May this year after controversy over how sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Google decide what content is harmful and what isn’t.

Victoria Hewson, head of regulatory affairs at free market think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, said at the time that the bill’s delay provided “an ideal opportunity to reconsider this highly contentious legislation”.

She said: “The bill not only raises serious free speech issues but has also become complex and unmanageable. The latest amendments have made this situation even worse.

“The bill should either be abandoned entirely or stripped back to what is absolutely necessary to protect the safety of the most vulnerable.

“It should not seek to protect adults from all sorts of alleged harms at a cost of billions of pounds to businesses, and at the expense of freedom of expression.”