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Government urged to add scam protections to Online Safety Bill

Group of organisations calls for the government to use the Online Safety Bill to protect people from cyber scams

A coalition of organisations representing consumers, civil society and business is urging the government to include protections from online cyber scams in the Online Safety Bill, warning that Westminster’s much-quoted ambition to make the UK “the safest place in the world” to be online risks being unattainable.

In joint letter presented today (7 May) to home secretary Priti Patel and digital secretary Oliver Dowden, the group will call on the government to include online scams in the bill to better protect consumers from “the devastating financial and emotional harm caused by these crimes”.

The group comprises Age UK, the Association of British Insurers, the Association for Financial Markets in Europe (AFME), Carnegie UK Trust, City of London Corporation, City of London Corporation Police Authority Board, City of London Police, Innovate Finance, the Investment Association, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, MoneySavingExpert, Personal Investment Management & Financial Advice Association (Pimfa), B&CE, TheCityUK, UK Finance, Victim Support and Which?.

The letter says: “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.

“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.”

The group said a wide-ranging consensus is now emerging across industry, regulators and consumer groups that online platforms must play a bigger role in doing better at protecting their users from such scams, and are calling for such platforms to be made legally responsible to do so. They believe the Online Safety Bill, which could be announced in the Queen’s Speech on 11 May, will be the perfect opportunity to enact such legislation.

“The biggest online platforms have some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, yet they are failing to use it to protect scam victims who are suffering devastating financial and emotional harm due to the flood of fake and fraudulent content posted online by criminals,” said Which? CEO Anabel Hoult.

“The time for self-regulation is over, as clearly it has not worked. The case for including scams in the Online Safety Bill is overwhelming and the government must take the opportunity to act now. Online platforms must be given a legal responsibility to prevent, identify and remove fake and fraudulent content on their sites so that their users are better protected.”

Read more about cyber scams and Money and Mental Health Policy Institute founder Martin Lewis added: “It beggars belief that the government’s Online Safety Bill could ignore the epidemic of scams that the UK faces – but that’s the plan. Scams don’t just steal people’s money, they can take their self-respect too, and those with mental health problems are three times more likely to be affected.

“The policing of scams is critically underfunded, leaving criminals to get away with these frauds with impunity. The government has a chance to at least deny them the ‘oxygen of publicity’ by making big tech responsible for the scammers’ adverts it is paid to publish.”

The coalition noted that the increase in the use of online tools throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has left people more vulnerable than ever to online scams – rates of which have duly escalated in the past year, with over £1bn lost in the UK last year, and 85% of all fraud now having some cyber component. Lack of reporting, caused in many cases by factors such as the victim’s embarrassment or lack of confidence that they will achieve justice, means the true costs are much higher.

Falling victim to cyber fraud can also be devastating in terms of mental health. One victim who did speak up was Maria Jackson, a 63-year-old teacher, who was conned by a fake news story that contained fabricated quotes from explorer Bear Grylls, supposedly giving cryptocurrency investment advice.

After entering her details on the website, Jackson was contacted by phone by a supposed financial adviser who, over time, persuaded her to transfer nearly £120,000 to the scammers. Her bank, First Direct, has only refunded half that amount – a spokesperson said the bank believed Jackson should have been more cautious, but also accepted the bank’s fraud warnings could have been clearer.

Speaking about the impact of her experience, Jackson said: “I felt completely sick. I’m overall better now, but often I get flashbacks of certain events and that upsets me a lot. I usually get them at night when I’m in bed and when that happens, it sets the tone for a bad night’s sleep.”

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