/ Scams

Paid scam ads: it’s time to close the loophole

To coincide with our efforts to encourage government to tackle scam ads, the Chair of the Joint Committee tasked with scrutinising the Online Safety Bill, Damian Collins MP, explains why paid-for advertising must be brought within scope of the legislation.

This is a guest article by Damian Collins MP. All views expressed are Damian’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

The UK will soon be passing world-leading legislation to protect users, especially children, from the worst online harms imaginable. But in order to be truly effective, the government needs to recognise that paid-for content can be just as harmful, if not more so, than organic posts.

In July 2021, I was elected Chair of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, in charge of scrutinising the much-anticipated law. We heard from ministers, businesses, lawyers, whistleblowers and academics, and our overall impression was that while there was a lot of support for the Bill’s objectives, it needs focusing and strengthening.

One of the most powerful evidence sessions was when Which?’s policy director Rocio Concha, and Martin Lewis from the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, told us of the increasing number of UK citizens falling victim to online fraud.

Online fraud ‘drastically increasing’ 

The Committee heard that a man lost £19,000 to an investment scam, as did a grandmother who lost the money her grandchild inherited from their deceased parent. We were also told that in 2020, £21.2 million was lost to romance scams, such as the infamous ‘Tinder Swindler’.

Which? described how easy it is to advertise false, and sometimes dangerous, products and services on Facebook and Google. The City of London Police, responsible for financial scams, told Parliament that reports of online fraud were drastically increasing, beyond their capacity. The Financial Conduct Authority, UK Finance, and the Competition and Markets Authority all reiterated how urgent it was to clamp down on this.

The current drafting of the Online Safety Bill would mean that social media platforms would only have a responsibility in law to act against this once it has been reported. They wouldn’t have to proactively take it down, or prevent algorithms from pushing it into users’ feeds.

Also, the current drafting excludes all paid-for advertising, which means that a bad actor could just put money behind a scam, and there wouldn’t be any duty on the platform to proactively take it down, beyond its own terms and conditions – which they clearly aren’t enforcing.

Proactively take ads down

In the eyes of our Committee, the solution was clear. In our report published on 14 December 2021, we recommended that fraud should be one of the categories of illegal priority content that platforms have to proactively take down, regardless of whether it’s an ad or not.

We’ve already seen good progress on this from the government: they have announced that fraud and financial crime will now be priority offences, that platforms will have to build systems and processes to proactively act against.

Now, we’re asking Secretary of State Nadine Dorries to close the final loophole, and bring ads in scope of the Bill. Then, it truly will make the UK the safest place to be online in the world.

This was a guest article by Damian Collins MP. All views expressed were Damian’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

If you agree that paid for advertising must be included in the Online Safety Bill, please show your support by sending a message via Twitter:

I agree with @WhichUK – if @nadinedorries wants to #StopOnlineScams then tech giants must be made responsible for preventing scam ads from appearing on their sites. To protect us all, online scam ads must be part of the Online Safety Bill.

Comments

Online scam ads should be included because they cause many people to get caught as they are so realistic. Online media should help protect everyone.

Michael Gareth Benthall says:
26 February 2022

I agree the most important issue to increase user security is to outlaw scam advertising. Please, please, please add this to the online safety bill.

M G Benthall MBCS

We need Action not words from the Government.
Scamming is criminal.

I would be happy to support this but I avoid Twitter now because of all the rubbish I used to get.

Maria says:
27 February 2022

No to any scams on line . Stop 🛑 all scams . Big Tech companies -Do not profit from scams advertising

Kenneth Stinton says:
1 March 2022

It would be most reassuring to know that an effective On Line Safety Bill had succeeded in eliminating scammers and fraudsters from on line advertising.

D.Turner says:
9 March 2022

I totally agree with all the above comments including the one using Twitter and the one on the emotional impact a fraud can make. I hope the Online Safety Bill will finally close the loophole that criminals take

Pam Grady says:
1 May 2022

We need Action not words from the Government Scamming is criminal we all need the online safety bill, it is outrageous one must feel as safe.