/ 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.

Doug says:
11 May 2021

There are vast amounts of money being lost to these ever increasing online scams and there is only one certain way to stamp it out altogether. How?, the government must thoroughly look into it and stop it altogether or else be made fully accountable for any failings and financial losses of the public. That will soon make the government wake up and take notice if they end up having to reimburse anyone and everyone who has financially lost out by a scam.
You can then bet that ALL financial scams will immediately taken offline and stopped in their tracks.

I got a text today from a mobile phone which included a url, purportedly from my bank. I didn’t open it, just sent a reply saying that I didn’t believe my bank would send me a text from a mobile number. I had checked where the text was sent from because i had one supposedly from PayPal last month saying I needed to confirm my bank connection or they’d close my account, since it’s been running without problems ever since I’d had to update the expiry date on the card. I didn’t open their link that time either. I found the number to contact PayPal and spoke to a real person and told them about the text, he said check the number that sent the text, if it’s a mobile number it’s a scam, he also reassured me they were not about to close my account. He gave me a few other tips as well, he also said most of the calls they were responding to in recent times involved scams via email and text and to be very careful as many appeared to be genuine.

Janet – It was wise not to open the link but it was probably not a good idea to respond to the text message. That establishes your presence and adds an identity to the scammers’ database. It’s best to ignore any suspicious messages. If your bank had something important to tell you it would do so in a secure way, most likely by correspondence.

My bank stopped including links in text messages in 2018. They do send texts with single-use passcodes when logging into online banking and to alert me to the fact that a new payee has been set up on my current account, both without links. I welcome these and other recent changes.

John Woodland says:
12 May 2021

My granddaughter lost £426 when buying from an Instagram fraudulent advert. Her bank refused to refund the money and the Instagram account is still advertising.

Debbie walsh says:
12 May 2021

We are being forced to do more on line and as such the Government should be doing more to save us from all types of Scams.
Fraud is despicable and should be stamped out

Debbie – It might have been necessary to buy some things on-line when shops selling non-essential products were compulsorily closed – although almost all essential goods remained available in shops that were open – but there is a choice on-line between reputable and reliable UK retailers on the one hand and unknown traders of unknown origin on the other. We all have that choice over where we spend our money.

I agree that fraud is despicable and one way to minimise it is to buy only from good companies who trade fairly, honour consumers’ rights, and in the long run give value for money.

I agree John. I can easily avoid buying from potentially dodgy traders if I choose to buy online. You can avoid fraud by being careful where you buy.

Andreea says:
13 May 2021

Maybe but did you know that the way some of these frauds work is by cloning real,legitimate companies and getting their victims to invest in something they might belive to be a legitimate company?

Yes, and one example that has been discussed at length here is Clarks shoes: https://conversation.which.co.uk/shopping/fake-ray-bans-scarves-online-shopping-orders/

Nowadays I look at the terms & conditions of an online seller before placing an order, physical address, company number, procedures for dealing with faulty goods, and so on. The fraudsters don’t always provide these details. I’m not convinced that supposedly reputable companies should be selling via social media sites.

“For example Prices on this site are unbelievable Does anyone know if it is a scam? clarkseushop.com/” The clue is often there.

Electronic Biker says:
14 May 2021

Hello wavechange. I have neither the time nor the patience to go through the rigmarole that you have outlined before making a purchase from something that looks like the real dealer but might well not be just because the banks and the government do their best to avoid doing anything about what are, in fact, their problems. I’d rather go to a shop and look at stuff whenever possible even if it means a long car journey (which in itself can be quite enjoyable). Or, on a nice day, a long motor-cycle journey.
My preferred solutions are to use a mobile phone which is very old and does not use android, ios, or windoze as its operating system. It works very well for phone calls and text messages, and it takes very good photographs. I have a hikers’ sat-nav for when I’m walking and a car sat-nav for when I’m in the car. Several of the computers that I use at home are not windoze, android, or ios, and I don’t ‘do’ on-line banking.
A call-blocker either in or just outside land-line telephones is a marvellous thing to have.
You must think by now that I live a very self-deprived life. This is not true. I seem to be much happier than many of the other contributors to this article, something which means a lot to me. I’m not exactly smug, but certainly very glad that I don’t have the problems they all seem to be having.

Being cautious is a good strategy.

Hi Electronic Biker. I far prefer to buy in shops too, and I don’t mind paying a bit more because if something goes wrong I can take products back and speak to someone face to face. During the pandemic I have placed one clothes order with a well known retailer and two pairs of boots from the Clarks website. I’ve never ordered clothes or footwear online before but during the pandemic I have good health reasons for not going into shops. Likewise I have been buying groceries online. I have never bought anything from social media sites and do not intend to, but through Which? Conversation I am aware that many have been scammed and I want to warn others. I mainly use a few companies that have proved trustworthy in the past but if I wanted to use an unfamiliar one I would go through the rigmarole of doing the checks I mentioned, unless it is a small purchase.

I am happy to use online banking and mobile banking has been a revelation. I use laptops and a phone that are updated and have malware protection. Apart from that I am happy to continue to use elderly products that are easy to repair, as long as they continue to work well.

I do not know who is being scammed. I always avoided discussing anything financial with friends, but recently I have brought scams into phone discussions. So far I have not found anyone who has admitted to being scammed but several have mentioned having friends or family that have been victims.

Enjoy your travels. I used to have a motorcycle until someone took it while I was at work. 🙁

Having just read “Laws mean nothing when enforcement has been gutted” written by George Monbiot. Guardian Opinion 12/5/21 I despair of any real action.
“ Both Trading Standards (contacts with the public has now been outsourced to a charity Citizens Advice, who simply pass on the information ) and Action Fraud , also a skeleton service (complaints are screened by AI, and the great majority are not pursued, often for opaque and inexplicable reasons.“
In my view they apparently have little teeth to expose these scammers either in real life or on the internet.
I believe the legislation should include serious financial support to the above organisations , to ensure that they have the personnel to target the fraudsters. But please don’t put the blame on local authorities, as they have so little money to deal with so many citizen’s needs.

Citizens Advice operates like triage in an accident and emergency department and will refer people to where they can get useful advice. If we need specialist NHS treatment we are referred to a consultant by our GP rather than just booking an appointment with the consultant. In my experience Citizens Advice does its job well in passing appropriate cases to Trading Standards but it is years since Trading Standards has provided me with any useful help. I do not see much hope for improvement until the service is better funded.

Action Fraud records cases and does not claim to do more. The information may help identify major problems but it will not help the individual.

Philippa – Trading Standards services were stripped to the bone by the 2010-15 coalition government in the naïve belief that the new Consumer Rights Act would give adequate protection and resolution to consumers. As you say, local authorities were then left without the resources to maintain a useful function and access to the remaining elements of trading standards was controlled by Citizen’s Advice acting as a gatekeeper.

This has proved to be a very poor substitute for the previous good service covering both trading standards [weights & measures, etc] and consumer protection [action against dodgy traders, dangerous products, etc]. Local authorities now appear to be impotent to tackle major problems emanating from big brand manufacturers and high market-share retailers.

While giving further subsidies to Citizen’s Advice might be welcomed and might ease the pressure, I don’t feel that is the right response to a major structural fault in the consumer landscape. CA lacks the authority and resources of a major council such as a London or metropolitan borough or a county council and is not in a position to launch high-powered legal actions. Meanwhile, over the last decade, the growth of the internet both as a trading platform and as a social medium where criminals lurk in the dark has opened up new hazards for consumers.

I believe the best way to provide the necessary support for consumers, both personally and collectively, is to re-establish multi-functional trading standards services across the country. It is quite clear that the various regulators and ombudsmen that now litter the landscape cannot provide the remedies that consumers seek – although in the utilities sector the regulators are more or less effective strategically in promoting competition and combatting the abuse of monopoly power.

It is significant that there is not a single minister in the government with consumer interests in their portfolio. This might go some way to explaining why we are where we are today with weak laws ineffectually enforced.

Citizens Advice may be OK for referring some to appropriate sources of advice but that is no substitute for taking action – which they don’t. I’d rather see money that might be given in subsidies going to help fund and revitalise Trading Standards.

We need Trading Standards to operate in two ways. One, at local level, to deal with local issues. The other, at national level, to deal with issues that affect the whole nation. Both divisions part of one organisation.

As far as I know TS did not seek redress for individual complainants but took action against the organisations that behaved improperly.

I would like to see Which? looking at how best to (re)establish a properly resourced organisation to protect consumers.

Citizens Advice provides basic advice on a wide range of issues and if there is a case relevant to Trading Standards it should pass that to TS. That’s how our local Citizens Advice works.

We have discussed the need for a national trading standards organisation many times. If we are let down by an online trader it makes more sense to contact a national organisation rather than our local Trading Standards office.

Unfortunately, we are not going to return to the days when Trading Standards would handle individual complaints about traders until the government allocates more funding for the purpose.

J. Gibbs says:
12 May 2021

I fully agree with everything you say. Online scams are a scary business, particularly to those like me who are older and less competent with today’s modern technology.

Geoffrey Allen says:
12 May 2021

I fell victim to a sophisticated scam in which the fraudster posed as Microsoft and was supposedly rectifying a fault it had identified. It removed several £thousands from my accounts/cards.
The banking systems protected nearly all these unauthorised payments and I am now only waiting a decision on the last £350.
I’m not so sure the presumed bad reputation is totally deserved.

Brian Foster says:
13 May 2021

I had that message I knew it must be a scam I told them I haven’t used computer for over a year they asked me to switch on I said ok put the phone down and sat watching TV whilst they waited every now and then I would pick up phone and say it’s updating they hung up in the end. I scamed the scammer it felt good.

Frederick Wilkes says:
12 May 2021

I think it very sad that in this technological age we are not able to do more to protect people from this despicable scourge. I spend much of my time every day after logging in, deleting the many unsolicited probable scams before I can start work. It is also most annoying that we have to receive scam phone calls, which when I check the callers number on line, are normally identified right down to the house the call originated from. I know the police are under-resourced, but surely, something should be done about these harassing and dangerous nuisances.

Janny Abbott says:
12 May 2021

I had a classic scam today via a text message purporting to be Hermes trying to deliver a parcel and to click on a link to arrange a new delivery. I knew it was a scam so deleted it, I was in all day and hadn’t ordered anything. But others, not so worldly wise, like my mother-in-law would be fooled by this, she has a phone but not the ability or tech savvy to understand that these leeches are out there. She trusts people. Neither is her mind as agile as it used to be. We could all end up losing the ability to understand such technology as we get older. It happened to my mum too as she succumbed to dementia. These people need to feel the weight of what they do.
Apart from making laws tougher for the big Tech companies, they are the ones raking in the money, I think there should be ‘hit squads’ that play these people at their own game. There are some very good YouTube videos showing how to disrupt the activities of the scammers, so it can be done and it makes amusing watching and listening. There are some good people out there, like modern day Robin Hoods, watching and disrupting nefarious activities, this should be done on a large scale by the Tech companies. They could have squads of people, like an on-line Police force if they had a mind. But they will need Government pressure and legislation to make it their responsibility to keep apace with the latest scams.

Henry says:
12 May 2021

Scam advertisements on websites are a very serious issue but my real concern is for the large number of scam emails I get, no doubt many of the links they contain go to scam advertisements or phishing sites. Most purport to come from legitimate large companies and as such are clearly fraudulent and should be prosecuted as such. I report the majority to the real company whose name they contain and to the Government phishing site but investigating and reporting them is so time consuming and such a waste of my time!

Hi Henry, thanks for your post. I agree that unsolicited emails are annoying. Have you considered getting a better spam filter for your email?

It is a sad world when every communication that lands on our laptop or mobile phone has to be checked, double checked, investigated in depth before any action is taken. In these days I simply do not response to any communication, even when it appears to be from a genuine organization known to me. Instead, I contact that organization within the next few days to check whether the communication came from them. Buying online became dangerous and giving card details to the seller directly is a thing of the past. All payment should be conducted through reliable third party.
Criminals will continue to try to steal our money as long as they get away with it. Cyber criminals should be treated the same way as other criminals and more effort should be made to catch them. Part of the cost of this extra effort should be offset by confiscating the criminals ill gotten assets.

George Bishop says:
12 May 2021

Make anonymous surfing illegal, give every internet user a verifiable ID. Make IPs responsible for any losses and responsible for identifying any illegal activity on their sites. Ban transgressors from the internet for life. Seize and use scammers assets to repay any losses incurred. Make internet crime NOT pay!

Hi George, most users can already be tracked by their unique device finger print and IP address (if they do not use a VPN to spoof that. For example see:-https://brax.me/geo/ which will reveal what any website can determine about your identity and location.

If you check out Jim Browning on YouTube, you can see how he uses similar data to track down scammers. Most of the scammers he tracks down are in India. But the local police there do not usually take much action, because the scam victims are not in India and UK police do not usually take much action because the scammers are not in the UK.

D Vazquez says:
13 May 2021

It is so easy to get caught out, it is not just those who we might consider vulnerable…but anyone can have a moment when they click on a link without thinking…the scams are aimed at lulling us into believing they are genuine contacts from someone we would expect to receive contact from! Not only can we get caught out, but it also interferes with the routines of our life as we hesitate to follow any link even the genuine ones which may impact on us in other ways.

F Smith says:
13 May 2021

It is absolutely crucial that the government deals with all this fraud. Heard today on Rip Off Britain that people are having money stopped from their salary due to scammers stealing their details and making false claims for Universal Credit. No matter how much you do to protect yourself you are still open to scams. It is far too easy for people to get your details and use them for scams.

In my view, fraudsters are being treated too leniently and the advice from the authorities to potential victims is too weak and timid. Fraud is rampant, indicating that the police are failing to deter this type of crime. I have had calls from fraudsters several times and when I have reported them I never heard anything back. The advice on recognising or suspecting fraud by phone is to hang up. This is a weak response to what is to my mind attempted robbery. We need a technical solution whereby the public can dynamically raise an alert when a fraudster is on the line. We need much better reporting – I have to admit that I haven’t reported all attempts to defraud me. I would agree with those who say that sophisticated fraud is difficult to police but measures need to be taken now to achieve higher rates of detection and harsher penalties for convicted fraudsters. Otherwise, the upsurge of fraud will continue and the quality of our lives will become further degraded from the effects of and the fear of this cowardly crime.

I am fed up with all these scams, every other call is trying to scam you out of something. I feel im on a hit list at the moment, and im really fed up with it. Im getting to not trust anyone, and thats horrible.

Keith says:
14 May 2021

To stop nuisance phone calls get a ‘Truecall’ type of nuisance blocking phone, this has worked 100% for 2 years and is well worth a very slight inconvenience.

A lot if scams depend on getting you to log into your bank account and the scammers edit the web page to make it look as if you have been credited too much. An automatic 30 sec refresh on the Web page would wipe out their edits.

Fraudsters are being treated too leniently and there should be strict laws in place to prevent scams proliferating. Too many people have been devastated by having their hard earned finances scammed from them. It’s time the government and large companies got to grips with wiping this out – or at the very least making the punishment as severe as the hardship caused by these ruthless and heartless individuals

13 May 2021

It seems that everyone I know, along with myself, are receiving numerous scam emails & phone calls (the majority of the calls are from people with Asian accents). It’s an every day occurance & it’s very frustrating!! Alongside that are multiple advertisements popping up everywhere – I feel I’m under attack!!

Lillian Avon says:
13 May 2021

But how are the scammers getting the mobile numbers, email address and landlines? Somewhere our personal data is being compromised and sold on to scammers. So in tandem with this petition for the bill we need to really enforce the GDPR Data legislation too.

Hi Lillian, there are lots of ways that scammers can use to select phone numbers and email addresses.

One is to use simple computer software to guess phone numbers and email addresses. After all, they want to reach as many potential victims as possible and it costs them nothing to try non existent contact details.

They can also buy such data, either from those with permission to sell it for marketing purposes or from those who have stolen it in data breaches.

I had a nuisance call on my mobile from Domestic & General recently. I believe that it was passed on by the company that sold and delivered the product. It was not a scam but it demonstrated how easily phone numbers can be passed on. I have also received marketing emails after registering several products to ensure that I am notified if there is a safety recall.