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Calls for government action on emotional toll of online scams

Written by: Emma Lunn
Which? is calling for urgent government action over the ‘devastating emotional toll’ of online scams.

Research found that hundreds of fraud reports are flagged each week because victims are showing signs of severe emotional distress.

Which? reviewed 16 research papers and datasets from across the world, and obtained figures from UK police. It found serious emotional harm from fraud can occur irrespective of whether the victim lost money or was reimbursed.

Figures from Action Fraud show that 300 to 350 fraud reports a week feature victims showing signs of severe emotional distress. This equates to up to 18,000 reports a year.

‘Threat to life’

Between January and November 2020 alone, Action Fraud received 241 phone calls where there was deemed to be a ‘threat to life’. In these situations call operatives must attempt to keep callers talking until an ambulance crew or police can arrive.

Phone calls and web forms triggering concerns for wellbeing represent up to 6% of the 300,000 reports Action Fraud receives each year.

Although the Action Fraud reports are not solely from victims of online scams, this is an area where Which? has repeatedly found consumers falling victim, including increasing evidence that online platforms are not doing enough to prevent these crimes.

Financial and emotional consequences

It found that the financial and emotional consequences for those tricked by these fraudsters, including  those who post scam adverts on websites and search engines, can be devastating.

One victim in his eighties lost more than £50,000 in retirement savings after clicking on a link at the top of his Google results page which took him to a fake version of the investment management firm Invesco.

Despite doing his due diligence to check if the company was legitimate, he had been speaking with a fraudster, who assumed the name of a real compliance manager for Invesco. He only discovered he had fallen victim to a scam after he didn’t receive confirmation of the investment and was unable to contact the company.

The victim has since been reimbursed under the terms of the authorised push payment scams voluntary code, after his bank decided he had done his due diligence and was not to blame.

A European Commission survey found that eight in 10 (79%) scam and fraud victims experienced a negative emotional impact, while a quarter (24%) experienced a negative financial impact.

More than half (57%) of those surveyed experienced only emotional or physical harm, showing that even where no money is lost – or where it is ultimately returned – the very act of betrayal represented by a scam often causes significant suffering.

Social media scams

Separate recent Which? research found that almost one in 10 (9%) people have fallen victim to online scam ads via social media sites, and the same percentage (9%) via search engines, as platforms fail to tackle a flood of bogus ads posted by fraudsters.

Which? is calling for action to be taken to address the fake and fraudulent content that leads to scams online. The consumer champion believes the UK government must give online platforms legal responsibility for preventing content appearing on their sites that leads to scams.

Home Secretary Priti Patel last week told Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee it was unacceptable that scams could be advertised on social media and that the government is looking at strengthening the Online Safety Bill on this issue.

Rocio Concha, director of policy and advocacy at Which?, said: “Online scams are happening on an industrial scale and our research shows the impact can be devastating, with hundreds of fraud victims a week showing worrying signs of severe emotional distress.

“The government should use the proposed Online Safety Bill to stem the growing tide of sophisticated scams by criminals online and give platforms legal responsibility for tackling fake and fraudulent content posted by scammers on their sites.”

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