/ 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 – an increase of a third (33%) on the previous 12 months. More than £2.3 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:
 

“As a coalition of consumer groups, charities and industry bodies, our united view is that the government’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. That’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.”

Full list of 13 organisations that have signed the statement:
 
📄 Age UK
📄 The Association of British Insurers
📄 Carnegie UK Trust
📄 Innovate Finance
📄 The Investment Association
📄 Money and Mental Health Policy Institute
📄 MoneySavingExpert
📄 Personal Investment Management & Financial Advice Association (PIMFA)
📄 B&CE Ltd, provider of the People’s Pension
📄 TheCityUK
📄 UK Finance
📄 Victim Support
📄 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 – and too often platforms like Facebook and Google are leaving their users worryingly exposed to criminals operating on their sites. 

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 people’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 £1.7 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 don’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? 

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

Let us know in the comments.

Comments

I posted this elsewhere in response to the press release before seeing this new Convo had appeared:

“https://press.which.co.uk/whichpressreleases/coalition-of-organisations-urges-government-to-use-online-safety-bill-to-protect-people-from-an-avalanche-of-online-scams/
” A wide-ranging consensus has emerged across industry, regulators and consumer groups on the urgent need for action to tackle scams and the critical role that online platforms must take in doing more to protect their users. ”

It is good to see so many organisations interested in the problem of online scams. What I hope is this is not another “something must be done” letter giving the creative thinking to someone else. I would have thought there is enough knowledge and expertise among these organisations to contribute considered proposals to government on how online platforms can begin to better protect consumers.

In the press release a teacher was tricked by supposed news that Bear Grylls became a millionaire trading bitcoin. This sort of scam could be checked by not allowing such material to be posted until verified or not by the platform. Just as Which? moderators tackle unwelcome comments perhaps. But just how can such potential scams be tackled by the platforms in practice?

What I, personally, never like about these stories is the headline-grabbing extreme cases presented. I suppose the press officers think, probably rightly, they will grab attention but my mind may work a little differently. Here I see an intelligent person overtaken by a kind of irrational greed, believing that she would become a millionaire in a field about which she knew nothing, with the sole help of someone about whom she knew nothing, without questioning why everyone did not become millionaires in this way, without seeking any advice and without wondering why a complete stranger should offer to do this rather than just continue make themselves multimillionaires by trading bitcoin. So she was responsible for her losses. I’d like to know exactly how her bank failed her and felt their customers should repay her £60 000.

How do you protect people from themselves? Can online platforms use technology to weed out all suspicious material before it is posted? Should they be able to react really quickly once such stuff is posted and either discovered by them or once reported? Do we fine them when they fail and who should that money go to?”

Addition – the above letter says “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. ” That is a very positive step. I hope Convo contributors who will make constructive comments on how this issue might be dealt with do have those proposals passed on by Which? as I assume all, or some, of the signatories to the letter will be forming a working group to consider, collate and work with Government on viable proposals.

@gmartin, George, could Which? let us know what working group will be formed to take this forward and that Which? will be an integral part of it? Will they keep us all informed of initiatives they are considering?

I look forward to learning more, but having organisations working together to tackle scams and make online platforms take responsibility for protection of consumers is a commendable approach.

Perhaps there are other problems that could be tackled by organisations working together.

My Mum fell victim to an extremely sophisticated investment scam. The website she clicked on had already been reported to Google and The FCA the week prior, yet it was still operational, therefore catching my Mum and many others. Not only are these giant firms not vetting new websites/ advertisements but are failing to act quick enough once reported. The scammers also used a stock exchange company in London to transfer the scams- Alpha FX ltd… another giant organisation that failed to spot the scammers. Why is it that 1/3 of crime reported in the UK is fraud, yet only 1% of police funding is aimed at tackling this? Include scams in the online harm bill.

Graham says:
7 May 2021

Luckily I don’t tweet or any of the others as I’ve always thought they are a good introduction for scammers. Should the Gov. do something about it, YES they certainly should and should have done it already but for the fact that I don’t think they know how go about it. It has been left Which and
others to put the pressure on and at last get it sorted out.

Do Which? know how to go about it?

Let’s start with making it impossible to spoof telephone numbers of legitimate organisations.

Sally Jones says:
7 May 2021

The Government must act to stop scammers. Facebook, Instagram etc should ensure that fraud does not occur on their websites.

Scammers truly are the scum of the Earth and must be stamped out at every opportunity.

The UK is the renowned home of soft justice, not enough by far is being done to punish OR deter these people OR any other criminals in the UK. Fear and anxiety caused to some of the most vulnerable citizens are NOT being handled correctly, with not even half decent sentences.
Many of these scams come from overseas BUT many are UK based, the chance of offenders being caught is poor and the chance of anything approaching a deterrent sentence, none existent.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how many times you tell people to be careful and to be on the look out for fraudsters/scammers, there always seems to be a never ending queue of people who fall victim. The continued success of the fraudlent activity engenders a proliferation of criminal activity and the problem keeps growing. Therefore, it is clear people, particularly the most vulnerable in society, need protecting from themselves and the scammers. It is time the Government acted on this. It is also time organisations both large and small are made accountable for the content on their sites and phone provides for scam/nuisance telephone calls.

Regina DEGIOVANNI says:
7 May 2021

I’m concerned about ad campaigns on YouTube. I called one about funeral plans. At the start of the conversation they wanted £150 to pass my details on to funeral organisations in my home city, and by the end of the conversation they wanted £250. They guy was most annoyed when I said no.

Hahahahaha, I bet he was.

I completely agree, it cannot be beyond the capability of these online and telephone giants, instead of taking such huge profits, to actually police their product. I get scam phone calls every week, the public should not have to put up with this level of abuse.

When I plugged in the phone on a new landline, I received about 5-6 calls every day, all of them scams. I unplugged the phone and am now using my mobile only.

Daniel says:
7 May 2021

Surely it is time to take action against a form of crime that targets the elderly and those least able to protect themselves. In addition it is a absolute nuisance that would not be allowed in other areas of life.

I don’t use Twitter but most definitely think something should be done. Social sites should be more responsible on the posts. Also telephone companies should be able to stop these calls mainly from abroad. Even belonging to tlc doesn’t stop them.

Christine Townend says:
7 May 2021

I have had 2 text messages this week recording the Census, both with Mobil number and saying ther is something missing off the form and if we don’t fill it in £1000 fine. Have reported to the police and action fraud is investigating.

narranellie says:
7 May 2021

It is of no use talking about what is to be done. Something more practical, real And physical has to come into play or it is nothing more than political type promises. Not we “need” to do but we “will” do

As an example of “something practical, real and physical”, I did know someone who kept a hand-held yacht foghorn (the type powered by a gas canister) to blast any nuisance callers! Although of course even that was no defence against silent calls or recorded messages. And unfortunately, it’s probably not an option for anyone with close neighbours!

Chas Griffin says:
7 May 2021

It will be difficult to stop scamming, but I do think the platforms should be held more responsible for closing down known scams. At the moment they seem to be hiding behind the sacred mantra of ‘free speech’. is ‘conspiracy to defraud’ really ‘free speech’? Who benefits?

Michael says:
7 May 2021

At the moment I am getting fraudulent calls every day..mostly pretending to be from the National Crime Agency.
The government need to act NOW!
If these people were walking about in Police Uniform trying to con people something would be done immediately.
Using the phone or online is no different.
The government must force the phone companies and internet providers to take action now. The phone companies need to be coordinating all reports of scams on their network and funding enforcement action. They are making the profits from the network so they need to pay up.

cheryl felix says:
7 May 2021

We were scammed out of £1300. We obtained the fraudsters’ bank details and the account where our money had gone. Lloyds refused compensation, even though they had given banking facilities to scammers. These people were obviously not vetted properly when their account was opened. The Financial Ombudsman wasn’t interested.

Martin McEntee says:
7 May 2021

Scammers are an absolute disgrace especially targeting weak and elderly people as well as those of us who may be a bit better aware.

A says:
7 May 2021

Life over the Covid Pandemic has been difficult enough without the threat of threat of scams, particularly when media organisations can take measures to prevent them and government can and should legislate to require media, banks and other organisations to prevent it and to liaise with like minded governments to impose severe penalties on any perpetrator of scams