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Misleading insurance ads on Google are costing customers, watchdog warns

Josie Clarke, PA Consumer Affairs Correspondent
·3-min read

Misleading ads on Google are directing consumers to expensive claims firms or premium-rate numbers when they try to make an insurance claim, a watchdog has warned.

Claims management companies (CMCs) and premium-rate call connecting services are competing for their adverts to appear above insurers’ own websites, Which? said, resulting in customers mistakenly using them at significant expense.

Which? analysed search results for the terms people most commonly use when searching for their car insurer’s phone number on Google, the default search engine on Android phones and Apple iPhones.

Which? found one in five searches (21%) displayed adverts for “call connecting” services at the top of the results.

When consumers tap on the ads they are taken to a website which displays a large phone number and a button that says “click to call”. Consumers are then put through to their insurer, but via a premium-rate phone number.

The cost of making these calls can quickly escalate, with a 30-minute phone call costing £112.50 on Sky, £124.50 on Three and £127.50 on Vodafone, the watchdog said.

Call connecting service ads are in breach of Google’s rules, so they should not appear in search results. Google said it had taken action to remove the ads, taking down more than 99 million last year.

The investigation also found “click to dial” ads for CMCs were “rife” and appeared in two in five searches (43%) for customer service phone numbers.

“Click to dial” ads have a clickable number in the search result itself. Some of these ads can trick customers into thinking they are contacting their insurer when in fact they are being put through to a third party to handle their claim, who will take a cut from any insurance payout.

Admiral Insurance told Which? it has had cases where customers only found out they had been dealing with a CMC when they called Admiral directly for an update on their claim.

Admiral also said it had complained to Google about CMC adverts appearing at the top of search results for a number of years. It published a guide on its website warning its customers in August 2018. Other insurers such as LV and Aviva have published similar warnings.

Which? is calling on Google to take more effective action to stop premium-rate call connecting services, which violate its policies, from appearing.

It advised consumers to avoid dialling any customer service numbers with “Ad” in the top corner of the search result. They should also be wary of any search results that do not match the term they typed in and any which do not state the name of the company they are trying to reach.

Adam French, Which? consumer rights spokesman, said: “These types of ads have been a problem for years and many of us are unaware that when we use a number we find in an ad online, we risk being left out of pocket or accidentally employing a third party.

“Google needs to work proactively to prevent call connecting ads which violate its rules and misleading click-to-dial ads from appearing in the first place. It must also take greater action to ensure these ads are not misleading consumers by branding themselves as ‘official’ customer service numbers.”

A Google spokesman said: “We have strict ads policies that govern the types of ads and advertisers we allow on our platforms. Under our policy we prohibit ads for call directory, forwarding and recording services.

“When ads breach our policies we take action to remove them. In 2020, we removed over 99 million ads in relation to restricted businesses.”