In this comment piece for The Telegraph, Which? CEO Anabel Hoult calls on the UK Government to stand up to tech giants to end the scourge of online scams.
By the time you finish reading this article, criminals will have scammed innocent victims around the UK out of more than £32,000.
When you open your paper or log in for a news update at this time tomorrow, more than £4.6 million will have been lost to fraudsters.
We all hope the tremendous success of the UK’s vaccine programme means there is finally the prospect of an end in sight to our shared experience of the terrible coronavirus pandemic.
But Britain is firmly in the grip of a scams epidemic, which shows no sign of abating.
Official figures from Action Fraud show £1.7 billion was lost to scams in the last year – but as many victims never report their losses, even that is likely to be an underestimate of the true figure.
Even pre-Covid, the figures were mind-boggling. But the unique circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic have made the last 12 months a boom time for fraudsters.
As the UK’s consumer champion, Which? recognised this threat and launched a free scam alert service, which has helped us – and tens of thousands of subscribers – keep track of the latest tactics used to trick unsuspecting victims into handing over their cash.
There have been HMRC coronavirus support payment scams and lockdown breach fine scams, seeking to exploit uncertainty around changing rules and regulations. Now fake vaccine invitations or fraudulent requests for payment to book appointments for jabs fill our inboxes. The audacity and cruelty of these criminals knows no limits.
If you think you won’t be caught out, think again. We hear from victims from all walks of life. Even a former executive director of the Bank of England has gone public with his story of being conned out of tens of thousands of pounds by fraudsters posing as BT staff offering to “protect” his computer.
The impact of scams for victims can be truly devastating and it is heartbreaking to hear their stories – of homes, life-savings and hopes for the future stolen.
Recently we heard from an 83-year-old retired teacher, who lost around £70,000 after falling victim to convincing “clone” investment websites. She had searched online for a better savings deal, as so many do in this era of record-low interest rates. She said she felt “totally mortified” and had to seek help from her GP following her ordeal.
Little wonder that in a Which? survey of investment scam victims, as well as financial losses, almost half reported a negative impact on their mental health (47%), stress in general (44%), anxiety over their finances (43%) and physical health (29%).
Tackling scams is complex and businesses across various sectors of the economy – telecoms firms, software providers and of course banks – all have a part to play.
The biggest trend of recent years has been scams shifting online. But our laws and regulations designed to protect consumers have failed to keep pace with the criminals.
The search engines and social media platforms, used on an industrial scale by scammers to target victims, take very little responsibility for preventing fraudulent content from being posted on their sites. Their current approach is woefully inadequate.
Despite claims from tech giants like Facebook and Google that they are taking strong action to crack down on fraud, they continue to profit from adverts posted by scammers that take the top slots in news feeds and search results.
At the same time, the FCA’s list of companies potentially running investment scams more than doubled from 573 in 2019 to 1,184 in 2020.
Yet Which? researchers found adverts for investment scams running on Google for days after the financial regulator had warned about them, while fraudsters’ websites remained live for weeks or months after the alarm was raised – giving the criminals time to lure in more victims.
Even when one fraudulent investment site is closed down, it is all too easy for those intent on defrauding consumers to get back up and running simply by changing their web address and buying new ads on search engines like Google and Microsoft’s Bing. We came across one company that had been linked to 28 websites on the FCA’s warning site.
To tackle this avalanche of online fraud, Which? believes the government must include the content that leads to scams in its proposed Online Safety Bill. This should give online platforms legal responsibility to identify, remove and prevent fake and fraudulent content from appearing on their sites.
These companies, which have some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, must step up and use it to be part of the solution to protecting consumers, rather than remaining part of the problem.
Campaigners like the family of Molly Russell, backed by the Telegraph, have fought admirably to secure much-needed greater protections for young people from hateful and abusive content online.
The case to also include the financial and equally devastating emotional harm caused by online scams in this vital legislation is overwhelming. It was encouraging to hear the Home Secretary tell MPs recently that the government is asking how it can strengthen the bill to tackle economic crime.
The Digital Secretary, Oliver Dowden, must now show that he is prepared to stand up to the tech giants and do what is needed to stop the epidemic of online scams.
These changes can’t afford to wait. With every day of delay, criminals are making off with millions of pounds. More lives destroyed as whole lifetimes of hard work and careful saving vanish into the digital ether.
Britain can set the global standard for safety online – but only if we tackle the scammers.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Telegraph on 27 March 2021.