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Calls for new laws to tackle online scams

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Written by: Emma Lunn
07/05/2021
A coalition of organisations has urged the government to use the Online Safety Bill to protect people from an ‘avalanche’ of online scams.

In a joint letter to the home secretary and digital secretary, 17 organisations have urged the government to include online scams in its proposed Online Safety Bill which could be announced in next week’s Queen’s Speech.

The coalition wants consumers to better protected against the financial and emotional harm caused by these crimes.

The organisations that have signed the letter include Which?, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, Carnegie UK Trust, UK Finance, the Personal Investment Management and Financial Advice Association (PIMFA), the City of London Corporation, City of London Police, The Investment Association, Association of British Insurers (ABI), MoneySavingExpert, and Age UK.

Online scams have escalated in the past 12 months, with Action Fraud figures showing that £1.7bn was reportedly lost to scams in the past year. Many criminals have shifted their activity online with Action Fraud estimating that in the year to June 2020, 85% of all fraud was cyber-enabled.

The actual financial losses are likely to be much higher and don’t capture the devastating emotional impact on victims. Research also shows that vulnerable people, including those experiencing mental health problems, are more at risk of falling victim to these crimes online.

In their letter, the organisations wrote: “Online platforms play a pivotal role in enabling criminals to reach and defraud internet users through the hosting, promotion and targeting of fake and fraudulent content on their sites, including adverts that they make significant profits from. Yet platforms have very little legal responsibility for protecting their users, despite often being the best placed to tackle harmful content.

“While we recognise there are initiatives being progressed by the government designed to tackle aspects of online fraud, there is a growing risk that current plans for future regulatory frameworks are not taking a comprehensive approach to the threats faced by consumers and do not reflect the extent or urgency of the problem.”

UK Finance figures show a 32% increase in investment scam cases in 2020, which are often promoted through adverts on search engines and social media offering higher than average returns.

The coalition of groups is calling for online platforms to be given a legal responsibility to protect users from fake and fraudulent content on their sites that lead to scams.

Anabel Hoult, CEO of Which?, said: “The biggest online platforms have some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, yet they are failing to use it to protect scam victims who are suffering devastating financial and emotional harm due to the flood of fake and fraudulent content posted online by criminals.

“The time for self-regulation is over, as clearly it has not worked. The case for including scams in the Online Safety Bill is overwhelming and the government must take the opportunity to act now. Online platforms must be given a legal responsibility to prevent, identify and remove fake and fraudulent content on their sites so that their users are better protected.”

Martin Lewis, founder of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute and MoneySavingExpert.com, said: “It beggars belief that the government’s Online Safety Bill could ignore the epidemic of scams that the UK faces – but that’s the plan. Scams don’t just steal people’s money, they can take their self-respect too and those with mental health problems are three times more likely to be affected. The policing of scams is critically underfunded, leaving criminals to get away with these frauds with impunity. The government has a chance to at least deny them the ‘oxygen of publicity’ by making big tech responsible for the scammers adverts it is paid to publish.”

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