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Paid-for advertising still not covered in Online Safety Bill

Consumer group Which? calls again for government to include measures against scam paid-for advertising in the Online Safety Bill

Consumer watchdog Which? has reiterated its call for the UK government to tackle fraudulent paid-for advertising in the upcoming Online Safety Bill, after finding social media platforms and search engines are failing to adequately protect their users from scams.

Research conducted by Which? found that an estimated nine million people – or 17% of those who responded to its nationally representative survey – had been targeted by a scam on social media, with only one in five consumers feeling protected online.

It also found that four in 10 (43%) were dissatisfied with the protection from scams provided by social media platforms and search engines – higher than dissatisfaction with the protection offered by the government (39%), email providers (33%), telecommunications companies (31%) and online marketplaces (29%).

The survey also found people had seen or been targeted by a scam via emails (58%), texts (53%) and calls (47%). About one in six people (17%) said they had seen or been targeted by a scam on social media, compared with one in seven (14%) for shopping websites and one in 10 (10%) for search engines.

In total, just under eight in 10 people (79%) said they had seen or been targeted by a scam online. Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest fraud has increased by 36% compared with pre-pandemic levels.

According to Which?, one victim – a 75-year-old woman – lost over £30,000 in 2020 to a potential cryptocurrency scam, after being tricked by a third-party advert on Facebook that featured fabricated quotes from Dragon’s Den’s Deborah Meaden.

After clicking through, she was directed to an online form to input her personal details and immediately received a phone call from a representative of the company involved. As the advert was on a site she trusted, and seemingly endorsed by a well-known TV personality, the woman believed it was legitimate.

“I have lost my life savings and have had to take an equity release out on my home. It has been very stressful. I urge Facebook to be more vigilant and vet any companies allowed to advertise,” she told Which?.

Responding to the Which? findings, a Meta spokesperson said: “Scammers use multiple methods on and offline to exploit people, including fake phone calls and text messages, phishing emails and online scam ads. We’re dedicating significant resources to tackling this industry-wide issue on and off our platforms.

“To fight this, we work not just to detect and reject scam ads on our services, but block advertisers and, in some cases, take them to court. While no enforcement is perfect, we continue to invest in new technologies and methods to protect people on our service from these scams. We have also donated £3m to Citizens Advice to deliver a UK Scam Action Programme to both raise awareness of online scams and help victims.”

“The government must include paid-for advertising in the Online Safety Bill so that consumers finally get the protection they need from fraudsters who will stop at nothing to target potential victims online”
Rocio Concha, Which?

Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy, said that despite these companies having some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, they were still not doing enough to protect their users from scams.

“The government must include paid-for advertising in the Online Safety Bill so that consumers finally get the protection they need from fraudsters who will stop at nothing to target potential victims online,” she said.

Which? previously urged the government to include protection from online cyber scams in the Online Safety Bill in May 2021, when it wrote a joint letter alongside a coalition of other organisations representing consumers, civil society and business.

“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,” wrote the coalition, which also included the Association for Financial Markets in Europe (AFME), MoneySavingExpert, City of London Police and Age UK, among others.

“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.”

In a report published in December 2021 by the joint parliamentary committee for the Online Safety Bill – which was set up to scrutinise the forthcoming bill and propose improvements before it goes to Parliament for final approval – MPs and Lords said the exclusion of paid-for advertising in the draft bill “would obstruct the government’s stated aim of tackling online fraud and activity that creates a risk of harm more generally”.

They added that “excluding paid-for advertising will leave service providers with little incentive to remove harmful adverts, and risks encouraging further proliferation of such content” and “Ofcom should be responsible for acting against service providers who consistently allow paid-for advertisements that create a risk of harm to be placed on their platform”.

Although the UK government expanded the scope of the Online Safety Bill in early February 2021 by adding three new criminal offences and a number of new “priority offences” (including fraud) that tech companies will have to proactively prevent people from being exposed to, paid-for advertising is still not included in the draft legislation.

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