/ Scams

Why scams must be included in the Online Safety Bill

The tech giants are not doing enough to stop lives being devastated by fraud. We’re demanding the government includes scams in the Online Safety Bill.

Update: 20/07/2021

We’ve today rejoined a coalition of consumer groups and industry bodies, including UK Finance and Martin Lewis and MoneySavingExpert, to renew our call for the government to include paid for online adverts within the scope of the Online Safety Bill ahead of pre-legislative scrutiny.

This follows recent Which? analysis of Action Fraud figures that found a devastating surge in scams during the pandemic, as fraudsters exploit the shift to online shopping.

Action Fraud figures, show in the year to April 2021, 413,553 instances of fraud were reported โ€“ an increase of a third (33%) on the previous 12 months. More than ยฃ2.3 billion was lost by victims as a result, causing huge financial and mental distress.

To date, the government has indicated that online advertising will be dealt with through a separate review of advertising regulations which is only in its infancy. Our joint statement:
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“As a coalition of consumer groups, charities and industry bodies, our united view is that the governmentโ€™s current approach to tackling online fraud is flawed. It will likely lead to complex and muddled regulations, and far worse consumer outcomes than an Online Safety Bill with a comprehensive approach to online fraud.

While we welcome the recent inclusion in the Bill of fraud carried out through user generated content and fake profiles on social media websites, there is still a long way to go. Failing to include online advertising in the Bill leaves too much room for criminals to exploit online systems.

This view is backed by the FCA, Bank of England, City of London Police, Work and Pensions Committee and Treasury Committee, who have all commented that the scope of the Online Safety Bill should be expanded to include fraud carried out via online advertising.

We do agree with the government that the impact of these frauds is often devastating, not just financially but also emotionally. Thatโ€™s why we urge ministers to reconsider their current plan, and make sure the Bill protects as many consumers as possible from the full extent of the devastation caused by scams.โ€

Full list of 13 organisations that have signed the statement:
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๐Ÿ“„ Age UK
๐Ÿ“„ The Association of British Insurers
๐Ÿ“„ Carnegie UK Trust
๐Ÿ“„ Innovate Finance
๐Ÿ“„ The Investment Association
๐Ÿ“„ Money and Mental Health Policy Institute
๐Ÿ“„ MoneySavingExpert
๐Ÿ“„ Personal Investment Management & Financial Advice Association (PIMFA)
๐Ÿ“„ B&CE Ltd, provider of the Peopleโ€™s Pension
๐Ÿ“„ TheCityUK
๐Ÿ“„ UK Finance
๐Ÿ“„ Victim Support
๐Ÿ“„ Which?

Update: 11/05/2021

Following today’s Queen’s Speech, it’s right that the government is giving the major online platforms we interact with every day a legal responsibility to protect their users. However in order to truly stamp out criminal content and activity online, the government must make it clear that scams are within the scope of the forthcoming Online Safety Bill.

Online scams have a devastating financial and emotional impact on victims โ€“ and too often platforms like Facebook and Google are leaving their users worryingly exposed to criminals operating on their sites.ย 

The current approach of self-regulation is not fit for purpose. The case for including scams in the Online Safety Bill is overwhelming, with industry, regulators and consumer groups all calling for urgent action to tackle online scams and for platforms to better protect their users from fraudsters.

Our open letter: 07/05/2021

We’ve joined forces with a coalition of organisations championing consumers, and representing civil society and business, to warn that the UK risks failing in its ambition to be the safest place in the world to be online unless it uses new laws to protect people from an avalanche of online scams.

This is our open letter sent to the Home Secretary and DCMS Secretary:

Scams and the Online Safety Bill: 05 May 2021

Dear Home Secretary and Secretary of State,

We are writing to you regarding the forthcoming Online Safety Bill. We urge the Government to expand the scope of this vital legislation to include fake and fraudulent content that leads to scams. This would better protect people against the devastating financial and emotional harm caused by these crimes.

As a group of organisations representing consumers, civil society and several sectors of the economy, including banking and financial services, we recognise how essential online services have become in peopleโ€™s daily lives as a result of changes in the past year.

There are now more people spending more time online and the benefits of this are significant. We are determined that people can continue to make the most of this shift and fundamental to this will be ensuring their safety online.

Yet there is a problem because the existing laws and regulations designed to protect consumers in the online world have failed to keep pace with criminals in this modern arena. This is particularly the case in relation to scams, where fraudsters are increasingly taking advantage of online platforms to target victims.

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.

3.7 million incidents of fraud

To illustrate the size of this problem, ONS data shows there were 3.7 million incidents of fraud between March 2019 and March 2020, making it the crime that adults are most likely to fall victim to in the UK, while Action Fraud figures show ยฃ1.7 billion was lost to scams in the last year.

UK Finance data shows that across scam types, there has been a significant rise in cases over the past year, with criminals adapting to target victims online.

As an example, there was a 32% increase in investment scam cases in 2020, which are often promoted through adverts on search engines offering higher than average returns, and a 38% increase in cases of romance scams, driven by the rise in online dating during the pandemic.

These figures are likely a significant underestimate of the true value and do not take into account the fact that even when the victim is reimbursed, criminals still retain illegal proceeds, reinvesting them in further organised illegal activity, causing wider societal harm. Nor do they capture the equally devastating emotional impact that scams have on victims.

Even if people are able to get their money back after falling victim, they can still experience significant emotional harm. Four in ten (42%) Money and Mental Health Research Community respondents who had fallen victim to an online scam felt that they had experienced a major negative impact on their mental health. Vulnerable people, including those experiencing mental health problems, are also more at risk of falling victim to these crimes.

Action against fake and fraudulent content

Across industry, regulators and consumer groups, there is now wide-ranging consensus on the urgent need for action to tackle scams and the critical role that online platforms must take in protecting users from the harm caused by fake and fraudulent content.

We believe that fake and fraudulent content that leads to scams must be included in scope of the proposed Online Safety Bill. This would require online platforms to identify, remove and prevent fake and fraudulent content from being hosted on their sites, putting in place incentives for platforms to work together with the telecoms, banking and finance sectors to tackle economic crime.

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.

We remain committed to working with the Government on this vital issue, toward our shared ambition for the UK to be the safest place in the world to be online, so that people and businesses continue to benefit from the shift to digital.

Copies of this letter go to the Minister for Digital and Culture, the Minister of State at the Home Office, the Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and the Minister for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health.

Yours sincerely,

Download the letter in full

Add your voice

We donโ€™t believe the big tech companies are doing enough to protect their users against fake and fraudulent content on their platforms. How do you feel about the ease with which this content can be hosted on their sites? And what would you like to see these companies do to finally put a stop to this?ย 

What would you want to say to the government about online scams? What actions should it take?

Let us know in the comments.

Comments
Vera Linda Mellor says:
18 September 2021

I full agree with Which that the proposed Online Safety Bill long overdue should include advertising and all types of scams if it is to be effective. Any negligent online company should be made legally liable to compensate the victims of these frauds perpetrated on their websites.

Easier said than done!

To be negligent towards someone, you must first establish a duty of care. That is the legal obligation that must be placed on these companies. A liability to pay compensation for negligence follows on naturally from breaching a duty of care.

A duty of care could be established by legislation. Otherwise, it might be difficult to show that the actions of an Internet services company based in California to publish an advert (just for example) could reasonably foresee that its actions would cause injury to someone in England, who has no connection with the company concerned, other than to choose to use their free service online.

This is the “neighbour” or “proximity” test. It has been used to successfully sue manufacturers (who have no contract with the consumer) who make dangerous products. But, as usual, the law is well behind the technology. And could you sue a newspaper for publishing an advert for a dangerous product that causes you harm?

Mary Marchant says:
18 September 2021

I think we should keep wearing masks in indoor public spaces. Also travelling abroad should continue with PCR tests when travelling abroad.

I agree that on line security should be tightened up. I think this should include prosecuting those running “businesses” that exist purely to cheat and harass the public both on line and via their telephones. I am also sick of having companies popping up first with claims of supplying the required product or service – even when the search request was for something not provided by them. That suggests those “leading” companies pay search providers to list their business first regardless of the subject. I am also fed up with having to go into great detail to protect my personal data and and to stop being added to 3rd party records every time I visit a web site or make a search. This is blatantly an attempt to intimidate the on line enquirer and to encourage them to “accept all cookies”. The practice is usually preceded with the ludicrously and ingenuine statement “We value your privacy”!! Nothing could be further from the truth. More honest companies offer “Accept all” or “Reject all” – far simpler and gets the job done. Honest and above board businesses do not need to resort to trickery, illegal or misleading practices and scams. We should all bear that in mind and boycott the offenders wherever possible.

I’ve decided to wade my way through the draft Online Safety Bill to see where there might be shortcomings, before sounding off here. I can tell they are serious about tackling these new global technological threats just from the tone of the opening paragraph:

“BE IT ENACTED by the Queenโ€™s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and
consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present
Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows: …”

That should have anyone intent on commiting Internet fraud sit up and take notice! Google and Facebook will be quaking in their boots.