Tech giants Google and Microsoft are failing to act quickly enough to remove ads from unauthorised firms – even after regulators have issued public warnings about them – leaving them to “run riot” and swindle consumers out of billions of pounds.
That is the damning conclusion of a new investigation by Which? that found dozens of investment comparison sites advertising on Google and Bing that were already on the Financial Conduct Authority warning list, fuelling claims that there are significant flaws in the monitoring processes used by search engines.
Consumer finance campaigner and former accountant Mark Taber told Which? that Google was still hosting ads for bondcompare.org.uk, a website linked to a clone scam, almost four weeks after it was reported to the FCA on November 17 2020. Although the financial watchdog added the site to an existing warning on December 10, Google continued to carry the ads until December 14 and the site was not shut down until 4 February 2021.
It has been well documented that scammers are taking full advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic, with soaring numbers of nuisance calls and emails.
A Which? analysis of Action Fraud figures suggests victims lost £1.7bn over 12 months – which works out at £3,234 reported lost to scams every minute. However, many scams will go unreported, meaning the true figure is likely to be much higher.
Much of this growth in scams has been fuelled by criminals shifting their activities online – whether peddling bogus get-rich-quick schemes on social media or fake finance firms promising enticing returns to savers looking to boost their investments in an era of record-low interest rates and economic uncertainty.
A Which? survey of more than 200 investment scam victims found that while one in seven (15%) were targeted by phone, that number was dwarfed by those lured in via online methods. Four in 10 (39%) victims were targeted via email (12%), search engines (10%), ads on Facebook (9%) or other non-social media or search engine online ads (8%).
The consequences for victims can be devastating. Losses to “clone” scams, those using websites that replicate legitimate firms, average £45,000, but Which? has heard from victims who have lost six-figure sums.
But not only are search giants failing to get to grips with the fraud epidemic, the FCA is unable to effectively police online fraudsters using these sites.
Which? cites the case of Mia, an 83-year-old retired teacher, who lost £70,000 to convincing clones of legitimate investment firms – Prudential and Macquarie Bank – after searching online for a better savings rate in April 2020.
However, an FCA warning about the cloned Macquarie Bank website was not published until May, several weeks too late, and it was a further four months before the regulator published a warning about the Prudential scam. Mia said she was left “totally mortified” by the experience and had to seek help from her GP.
Her experience echoed the victims responding to Which?’s survey, who reported a negative impact not only on their finances but on their mental health (47%), stress in general (44%), anxiety regarding their finances (43%) and physical health (29%).
One in five (20%) said they did not even contact their bank or card provider for a refund while three-fifths (61%) said they did not submit a complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS), in part because they were “too embarrassed” or thought they should “bear the burden”.
Separately, Which? says it has heard from some victims of these sophisticated scams that were initially refused reimbursement by their bank before the organisation got involved on their behalf.
Which?’s investigation also uncovered how easy it is for rogue investment sites to continue operating by simply changing their web addresses and using Google or Bing to re-advertise. One company, Lead Generation Ltd, has been linked to 28 sites on the FCA warning list.
Another site, comparebondrates.com, falsely claims to be regulated and was only subject to an FCA warning after Which? reported it. Shortly after that, potential victims reported receiving emails from fraudsters posing as Moneysupermarket. These scam emails were sent from firstname.lastname@example.org and included links to a site called comparebestbondrates.com, also subject to an FCA warning, which closely resembled the website of comparebondrates.com.
Which? also found a further three sites that were still up and running, despite using a phone number known to the FCA – highlighting that the current “whack-a-mole” approach to tackling the issue is not working, the organisation claimed.
Figures from the FCA point to the sheer prevalence of investment scam firms. Its warning list of firms potentially running investment scams doubled from 573 in 2019 to 1,184 in 2020 – yet three in 10 (29%) of investors surveyed by Which? had never even heard of the warning list.
Given the scale and devastating effects of scams, Which? is calling for online platforms, banks, regulators and the Government to go much further in tackling the issue proactively.
The organisation believes its latest findings are further evidence that the UK Government must include online scams in the proposed Online Safety Bill, and give online platforms legal responsibility for preventing fake and fraudulent content that leads to scams appearing on their sites.
In response to the explosion of scams seen since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Which? has also set up a free scam alert service, which provides regular updates on the latest scams and can help consumers familiarise themselves with the latest tactics used by fraudsters.
Which? head of money Gareth Shaw said: “The financial strain of the last year and record-low saving rates are pushing more people than ever to look for investments online, just as fraudsters are looking to exploit the uncertainty and confusion caused by the coronavirus crisis – resulting in a perfect storm for scams.
“Which? has launched a free scam alert service to help consumers spot the latest tactics used by fraudsters, but tech giants, banks, regulators and the government must all step up and do much more to stop victims from facing the devastating consequences of scams.
“Scams must be included in the proposed Online Safety Bill so that online platforms have legal responsibility for preventing fake and fraudulent content posted by scammers from appearing on their sites, and are forced to do more to protect their users.”
In response to the investigation, a Google spokesperson said: “Protecting consumers and credible businesses operating in the financial sector is a priority for us, which merits careful rules and enforcement. We take dishonest business practices and misleading ads very seriously and consider them to be a violation of our policies and recently updated our policies to enable verification of businesses promoting financial services in the UK. When ads do not comply with our policies; we take immediate action to remove them.”
Meanwhile a Microsoft spokesperson added: “As our policies clearly state, advertisers who promote financial products and services must ensure they comply with all applicable local laws and regulatory requirements. We encourage people to report possible deceptive or fraudulent ads they may be seeing so we can review and take action as appropriate. We also encourage anyone looking to make an investment to verify the company against the latest FCA register.”
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