/ Scams

Do you trust online adverts?

Algorithms deliver ads to apparently best serve your shopping needs, but how much do you trust an online advert? Are they a help or hindrance?

The ease and accessibility of using the internet is both a curse and a blessing in my view. 

It’s so easy for me to pick up my phone and ‘Google’ whatever it is that I need – a new bed for the dog; the number for the vet; the pet insurance claims portal…

I pretty much Google everything. It’s a time thing for me, it’s fast and easy but I also know that this comes with a risk – albeit a managed one. While I may think it’s there to serve my best interests, the internet is a money-making machine and, sadly, it’s also a scammer’s paradise.

Targeted ads

After Googling whatever shopping dilemma I’m in, I know there will be an inevitable deluge of targeted ads on my social media. 

So when I think about whether I trust these ads, my gut instinct is a straight ‘no’ – I don’t feel comfortable that I’m getting a ‘good’ deal, and I also know how scarily easy it is to be snared by a dodgy search listing or a rogue trader on social media.

In a survey over over 2,000 people who use social media, we found that one in ten had been taken in by a dodgy advert that appeared in their social media or search engine results.

We get so many people contacting us about these types of scams – be it a copycat website offering DVLA services, a scam investment firm ranking in search ads and conning people out of tens of thousands of pounds, or a scam retailer marketing ‘Clarks’ shoes and instead posting knock-off sunnies.

Our research into the reporting of these scams adverts found that the processes are so onerous, inaccessible and ultimately with disappointing outcomes that two in five victims do not report them to host platforms.

Aviva fraud report

Last week, the insurance giant Aviva released its fraud report. Its conclusion was that consumer trust in online adverts is pretty low. Of the people it surveyed:

⚠ 53% don’t trust adverts placed by genuine financial services companies

⚠ 65% don’t believe search engines verify the financial product, service or provider

⚠ 87% think the government should make search engines and social media sites work to stop ads misleading consumers or promoting financial scams

Online platforms play such a pivotal role in our day-to-day lives, but these platforms don’t seem to be earning our trust.

Google recently announced plans to crack down on rogue financial services advertisers with stricter requirements for firms promoting financial services. The change will come into effect from 6 September.

These checks could wipe out many scams which rely on paid-for adverts to find victims. However, stricter policies mean very little without enforcement.

So I’d like to hear from you – where do you stand on online ads? Are these harmless helpers in resolving your shopping dilemmas, or, like me, do you think these ads are far too often a scammer’s trap?


I do not “trust” any advert – if by that is meant accept what it says without question and take up the offer. The advertiser, legitimate or not, will simply give their totally positive side of the product or service and, quite naturally, rarely any negative attributes. What adverts do is draw your attention to new products and services or to ones you had not seen before as a first step to help when choosing what to buy.

The product may well be good and just what you want, but I want to see independent assessments of it, such as Which? should provide, look at reviews and research alternatives. This has always been the case but the internet allows quicker and much more comprehensive research before reaching a decision.

I avoid most social media and would treat advertising there even more cautiously. Too many people seem to take far too much on trust and don’t put the effort in to checking whether something might be a scam. That is why they end up with cheap sunglasses instead of expensive shoes.

If I search for products online I might start by using a search engine, but having found approximate prices I would then look at established companies, preferably ones I have used before, taking care to avoid lookalike websites. I check for physical address, UK company number, phone number and the terms & conditions, especially those about returns and faulty goods. I avoid buying from retailers that are not based in the UK. I am prepared to pay a bit more rather than take the risk of dealing with a dodgy company. I have never purchased anything advertised on social media.

Advertising can have a negative effect on me. If I am aware of heavy advertising it is clear that this has to be paid for by customers.

Totally agree. Need to check EVERYTHING on line, before purchase.

Patrick Taylor says:
1 September 2021

” or a scam retailer marketing ‘Clarks’ shoes and instead posting knock-off sunnies.”

Sunnies ? !

However apparently it is slang like shades or suncheaters. This part from Wikipedia is interesting: ” It is important to note that dark glasses that do not block UV radiation can be more damaging to the eyes than not wearing eye protection at all, since they tend to open the pupil and allow more UV rays into the eye. ”

As to trusting things promoted in the media I despair people’s gullibility. Ease of payment is an unmentioned problem that should be looked at as a means to cut fraud. Essentially if card payment companies were more responsible for who they acted for in collecting money that would be a major step forward.

As it stands apparently they can decide not to collect for a smutty site but have no problem with outright fraudsters.

In any case if people were required to write out a cheque or go through a more labourious payment process that would really cut down on thoughtless buying. For sites regularly used by the customer or white-listed brands this could give them an edge in being simpler to pay to.

In France to pay your waterbills you can pay by the normal methods or you can instruct the Govt. to debit your Bank account and pay the utility. This I assume is a great help to the unbanked or elderly or frail. It seems that leaving banking and commerce solely to businesses results in systems not very human friendly and designed more for speed and cheapness.

One of the voices on our Tomtom is an Aussie voice that says something like ‘You have reached your destination. Roll up your windows, grab those sunnies and don’t let the seagulls steal your chips’

I agree with you on method of payment that never seems to be discussed. Some credit cards go through a checking process and have declined to put payments through to well-known businesses, and I have to go through checkout again with a different card, but we don’t get to hear who puts payments through to scammers such as ‘Clark’s shoes.

Jayne Hughes says:
1 September 2021

Lately Amazon has been terrible to order clothes I wish they would tell you in the advertisement they come from China 99% its nothing like advertised 99% the sizes are completely wrong and the hassle in sending things back most time most of us can’t be bothered but with in a year its a lot of money waisted come on amazon at the top of your clothing range tell us they are in ports thank you

I have just checked clothing on Amazon as I was going to tell you how to check the ‘Dispatched from and sold by’ information as this gives you the seller information that would show the seller is in China.

But this information is missing from clothes sales so it looks like all items are sold and dispatched by Amazon.

All you can do is read the negative reviews and make up your own mind or better still, buy from established UK retailers who are struggling to survive with Covid.

Why trust any advert? It doesn’t know what you want, and certainly doesn’t know what you need. It’s all a big deception based on seemingly “intelligent” computer algorithms which are not actually that smart. So how could it possibly ever nudge someone to come to a valid purchasing decision?

What proof do I have of this? How many times have I searched for something on line – a dog lead say, but it doesn’t really matter what – made my decision and purchased it that very day. For the next week, I get little else but adverts bombarding me with dog leads and “associated” products – dog beds, dog coats, dog food.

But I’ve already bought one. Why would I need a second! And I don’t even have a dog; it was a gift for my girlfriend!!!

Fed up with this constant intrusion on my pet-free life, I reset my browser cookies. Now I get adverts for earwax removers, rape alarms and CBD oil. Soooo much closer to what I really need.

It’s a bit like those scammers; phone enough people and someone will take the bait.

Even worse are the emails – just in case you don’t notice the adverts. Did you forget . . . , you might be interested in . . . , didn’t find what you were looking for . . . , and I didn’t even log in to my account !!!!!!

Clearing cookies etc. doesn’t seem to clear everything these days. At one time they hid their data in Flash cookies, where do they hide it now?

I ignore most adverts and I think Kaspersky Internet Security saves me seeing a lot of pop-ups. I certainly don’t trust them.

It often doesn’t seem to matter what you are searching for, you keep getting the same results on Amazon, ebay, Etsy, Wayfair, etc. You have to think of search terms these poachers don’t use to find smaller businesses who probably can’t afford to push themselves to the top of search results.

What I find worse is sponsored ads that give you suggestions based on what you have just seen. Again, it doesn’t seem to matter what you are looking for, the same ads keep appearing and you have to try and think of different search terms or another way of searching the site to avoid them. There often dozens of ‘sellers’ all selling the same stuff with the same photos and it is difficult to find anything else.

They are usually Chinese sellers. They flood our selling sites, pay to promote themselves, undercut our small businesses, change name before they pay taxes, etc. Very soon they will be all that’s left unless something is done to stop them.

Facebook is a scammers paradise. Even after Martin Lewis took them to court over fake ads using using image and facebook implemented a details report option. They missed out the ads on the side on the page and only did the ones in your newsfeed. I complained and they finally did it and now it’s stopped working. And when you do report scam ads facebook almost always say it doesnt go against their community standards. Hence why I use an ad blocker until publishers of as take some responsibility for the ads they show.


Generally, I normally see a website I had previously been on, sometimes it might even be Which?! Normally I just ignore the adverts but on a mobile device, it can be a nightmare as the ads take up so much space on the screen. I don’t trust them though (worried about spam) so tend to just go to the website directly.

An interesting new angle to targetted advertising reported by the BBC today. And it’s not all about consumer goods!

Global Witness have been investigating how Facebook targetted advertising is reinforcing gender and age stereotypes, possibly in breach of UK equality laws.

They found that one ad for internal Facebook vacancies was seen by more than half a million people in the UK. Yet only 3% of the people who saw the ad were 55 years or older, despite the fact that nearly 20% of Facebook users in the UK are in this age bracket. Men were 62% more likely to be shown the ad than women, and the demographic that saw the ad most frequently was men between 25 and 34 years of age.

So Global Witness carried out an experiment where they ran four ads for real jobs and did not specify any ad targetting criteria (which could have been discriminatory and potentially in breach of UK laws).

Left to Facebook’s own targeting algorithms, the results were as follows:

– 96% of the people shown the ad for mechanic jobs were men;

– 95% of those shown the ad for nursery nurse jobs were women;

– 75% of those shown the ad for pilot jobs were men;

– 77% of those shown the ad for psychologist jobs were women.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal involving Facebook was below-the-radar political manipulation carried out by a third party. But this latest finding is in-your-Face[book] evidence of how these companies must be regulated to prevent this kind of social profiling being used against us and the laws of this country.

Link to follow below (after moderation) …

Global Witness calls on EHRC and ICO to investigate Facebook for breaking anti-discrimination and data protection laws (new press release):


I read that and was not surprised. I am sure Facebook are not alone in targeting recruitment advertising by social profiling [rather than by occupational experience which is the long-standing method].

I believe analytical data manipulation is becoming a serious issue that society has not really come to terms with yet and could have unintended controlling consequences when in the wrong hands.

I am able to provide the link to the BBC News article –

This is a serious problem with social media platforms that use computer algorithms to dynamically moderate content. Machine learning is very susceptible to bias resulting from both the data used to train it and the humans who program, test and modify it. There is even a recognised form of bias in computer science intelligence called Prejudice bias:

Prejudice bias is a result of training data that is influenced by cultural or other stereotypes. For instance, imagine a computer vision algorithm that is being trained to understand people at work. The algorithm is exposed to thousands of training data images, many of which show men writing code and women in the kitchen.

The algorithm is likely to learn that coders are men and homemakers are women. This is prejudice bias, because women obviously can code and men can cook. The issue here is that training data decisions consciously or unconsciously reflected social stereotypes. This could have been avoided by ignoring the statistical relationship between gender and occupation and exposing the algorithm to a more even-handed distribution of examples.

Even if not biased to begin with, systems like Facebook continue to “learn” from the data that has been input by users, picking up on different stereotypes and segments of the user population.

The algorithms then target more content that you will be interested in, giving rise to the “echo chamber” effect, where the content you see next reinforces your personal view of the world. If you are detected to be an anti-vaxer or have strong political or religious leanings, the content delivered will reinforce your beliefs that this is how the world is, or at least how it should be.

Companies like Facebook do this because they want to keep you as users. Seeing your own opinions replayed is a powerful form of flattery marketing – nobody likes to be told that there opinions are wrong! This draws you further onto social platforms where you are comfortable, and advertisers now have you as sitting ducks.

Paul Ehrlich is attributed with the saying: “To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer.” That was in the days of the ridiculous automated gas bill that most of us could recognise as a stupid mistake and laugh about over Sunday breakfast with the newspapers.

Today, things are getting much more dangerous for society. Legislation is overdue to tame the excesses of a handful of global companies that control the flow of information to the Internet. Scammers should be the least of our worries.

I’m not sure when FB is just a vehicle for adverts and targeting them efficiently it should be described as discriminatory. When I advertised for staff it was in specialist publications; it could be argued that by not using other more widely-read media that it was discriminatory.

The difference is that a specialist publication (except maybe in the magical world of Harry Potter) could not determine the demographic of the reader and selectively promote or hide an advert on its pages. That is what is going on here.

It seems that what Facebook is doing is on the borders of head-hunting. That is not illegitimate in my view. It is certainly a more efficient method than random casting. It does worry me, though, that crude data profiling and analytical interpretations can be discriminatory [in its academic meaning rather than as a pejorative term] leading to unhelpful consequences. For example, today to overlook female candidates for roles in engineering would be a commercial mistake. All profiling depends upon the quality of the guiding mind that sets the parameters.

I would say that advertising in relevant trade or professional publications is the long-standing and generally the best way of attracting the best applicants and is not by nature discriminatory [although the selection process could be]. Careful use of language can prevent any bias but phrases like “join our young team” or images showing personnel all of the same sex or ethnicity carry distinct messages. It is a tricky area and, in my experience, “human resources” people do not always get it right.

Through the power of social media there is now the opportunity for outreaching directly to people who fit a particular mould rather than leaving it to chance whether suitably skilled or competent people might have seen an advert in a publication or on a noticeboard. If the analytics are wrong, or the algorithm is deficient in its critical pathways, then poor results will be obtained and potentially good candidates missed. I’m not sure the skills and abilities to manage the profiling correctly are yet in place to give confidence that it is a reliable method on it own from an objective point of view, although it might appear to give satisfying results at a subjective level where ‘fit’ is regarded more favourably than other job attributes.

Anne Whiteley says:
10 September 2021

I don’t trust ANY advert and delete if possible as soon as I see it

Overdale says:
10 September 2021

I hate adverts, they are intrusive and rude, if a stranger came into my house and starting doing what the advert do I would be calling the Police

I don’t trust any Ads on any media.

I research thoroughly before buying anything of significance: that’s why I subscribe to Which?

I actually will not trust adverts that are apparently targeted direct to me because of algorithms analysing “my needs” as a result of searches. I always start again. I just find it annoying and intrusive that even a conversation in front of an internet controlled device such as a smart TV can result in unexpected increases in targeted adverts. Should be illegal on the grounds of human right to privacy (not the rules governing privacy as offered by internet giants.

Anura33 says:
10 September 2021

Couple of weeks back I was travelling in the car with some family members. Quite a long journey during which we had various conversations and discussions. At one point we discussed a book/film – neither of which was particularly recent. I was totally shocked the next day when this book popped up on my daily Amazon – you might be interested in… – email. I’d heard of this happening but first time I’ve ever seen actual evidence.

There’s so much uncertainty out there it’s simply unwise to engage with anyone

Terry Lewis says:
10 September 2021

I do not trust any advert on Facebook.

No, I don’t trust them. It is a pity, because targeted ads (properly policed) could be genuinely useful to the consumer and to the advertiser. I severely doubt that it is possible to get from where we are now to a system where they are policed adequately. The social media firms have no appetite for actually examining any of the information that they carry. Or to take any responsibility for it.

Geoff B says:
10 September 2021

Like “Overdale” I hate adverts and take no notice of any I see online. If I buy anything online I always use firms I know and trust. I am more concerned about adverts on TV especially the Drama channel where you get 10 mins. programme and 5 mins adverts every 15 mins.

Anthony says:
10 September 2021

I start from the following.
1. I am getting what is a fantastic service from internet companies eg google, youtube, gmail etc.
2. I pay for it with access to me/my data. I have a choice.
3. Part of that is to accept targetted ads – or pay if there is an option and if choose to.
4. Most ads are genuine but as with any ad – on the TV, pother media or through your letter box, you need to take care. Scams existed well before the internet.
5. More education is required to help people identify potential scams and to advise on how best, most safely use the internet.
6. Providers need to do more screening but they will never prevent scams.