ASA joins war on £190bn fraud with Scam Ad Alert tool

phoneThe ad watchdog is joining the fight against online scammers – estimated to cost British firms and consumers £190bn every year – with the launch of a new reporting tool covering major social media and online platforms.

Dubbed the UK Scam Ad Alert, the Advertising Standards Authority says the scheme will help get online paid-for scam ads taken down across multiple platforms.

Working alongside the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB UK), the launch follows a successful three month trial during which the ASA piloted a scheme that enabled it to alert platforms and, where relevant, publishers to paid-for scam ads online.

Platforms included in the new scheme are Facebook/Instagram, Google, Twitter, Snap, TikTok, Microsoft, Verizon, Taboola, Outbrain and publisher Reach.

The move comes amid ongoing concerns about online paid-for ads linking to fraudulent content, particularly crypto investment, such as Bitcoin, scams. Many scam ads of this type use false stories or doctored images of celebrities, and misleadingly imply those celebrities have endorsed the service.

Online scam ads and the sites they lead to are the cause of significant financial harm to some consumers, as well as damaging to the reputation of the online ad industry as a whole.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and Action Fraud warned that in 2018/19 victims of crypto and forex investment scams alone had lost over £27m in total. The Office of National Statistics goes way further, claiming online ads are a £190bn problem.

Last year, founder Martin Lewis forced Facebook to launch a new scam reporting feature to make it much easier for users to report rogue ads appearing on the site, which had used his image illegally.

The scheme was just one of the measures which Facebook promised to introduce after it secured an out of court settlement with Lewis, who was suing the company for defamation. Lewis dropped the case in January 2019 after Facebook vowed to introduce the tool as well as donate £3m to a new Citizens Advice project.

Using the ASA tool, consumers can now report scam ads appearing in paid-for space online to the ASA, which aims to send an alert to all participating platforms within 24 hours with key details of the scam ad, as well as to publishers when the ad appeared on a publisher owned site.

Partners will then aim to remove the offending ad within 48 hours and suspend the advertiser’s account. In some instances they may also add them to blocklists, even when the ads were not appearing on their platform, stopping them from appearing in future, the watchdog said.

While the ASA is quick to point out that the initiative is not a “cure all”, it insists it forms part of its ongoing response to better tackling online harms and working more closely with other bodies to better protect consumers.

The regulator added: “Tackling online scam ads is a global problem, requiring a joined-up response involving law-enforcement bodies and statutory regulators, platforms and all involved in the online ad industry, as well as national advertising regulatory bodies such as the ASA.”

The Scam Ad Alert system coincides with the Consumer Protection Partnership’s Scams Awareness Campaign which this year focuses on Covid-19 related scams.

Working with National Trading Standards, Citizens Advice, Competition & Markets Authority and Trading Standards Scotland, the partners aim to reduce the risk and impact of scams by raising awareness among consumers and equipping them with the skills needed to recognise and report them.

ASA chief executive Guy Parker said: “The overwhelming majority of ads responsibly inform and entertain their audience, but a small minority are published with criminal intent. Our Scam Ad Alert system will play an important part in helping detect and disrupt these types of scams. By working closely with our partners such as Google and Facebook we can act quickly to have problem ads taken down as part of our ongoing work to better protect consumers online.”

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