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‘Whack-a-mole’ approach to stopping online scams is not working, says Which?

Vicky Shaw, PA Personal Finance Correspondent
·5-min read

The “whack-a-mole” approach to protecting people from fraud when they are searching the internet is not working, Which? has warned.

The consumer group said tech giants, banks, regulators and the Government must all do much more to stop victims from facing the devastating consequences of scams.

Fake ads can remain live for weeks, even after public warnings about them have been issued, Which? said.

It found dozens of investment comparison websites advertising on Google or Bing that were already on the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) warning list or soon would be.

It said this suggests significant flaws in the monitoring processes used by search engines.

Which? said it had found three websites that were up and running despite using a phone number known to the FCA – highlighting that the “whack-a-mole” approach to tackling the issue is not working.

Rogue investment websites may sometimes continue operating by simply changing their web addresses and using Google or Bing to re-advertise, it added.

The consumer group said much of the recent growth in scams has been fuelled by criminals shifting their activities online, whether offering bogus get-rich-quick schemes on social media or fake finance firms promising enticing returns.

Which? analysis of Action Fraud figures suggests around £3,234 is being reported lost to scams every minute. Many scams also go unreported.

Average losses to “clone” scams, those using websites that replicate legitimate firms, amount to £45,000 – but Which? said it has heard from victims who have lost six-figure sums.

A survey of more than 200 investment scam victims found around four in 10 (39%) were targeted by methods such as email, search engines and adverts on social media or elsewhere online.

An 83-year-old retired teacher told Which? she lost £70,000 to convincing clones of legitimate investment firms after searching online for a better savings rate.

The teacher said she was left “totally mortified” by the experience and had to seek help from her GP.

A statement given to Which? by Google 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.”

Regarding Bing, a Microsoft statement said: “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.”

Gareth Shaw, head of money at Which?, 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.”

People can sign up to Which?’s scam alert service at which.co.uk/scamalerts.

Mark Allen, chief fraud and financial crime officer at the Association of British Insurers (ABI) said: “Two years after the cold-calling ban was introduced we see scammers using online channels and social media to steal money from people.

“The findings from Which? show the damage online financial scams cause. Legal obligations must be put in place requiring tech companies to design systems and processes to prevent scam content from appearing on their sites and to move quickly to take down fake websites and content.”

Here are some tips from Which?:

1. Ignore unexpected offers. 

Opportunities that come to you out of the blue, whether via a cold call, online advert or through the post, could be very high-risk or an outright scam.

2. Check the FCA warning list.

This can be found at fca.org.uk/scamsmart/warning-list, and it is where the regulator records details of firms it knows are operating without permission or running scams. If a firm is not on the list, remember it could still be a scam.

3. Check the Financial Services Register.

This is at fca.org.uk/register, and it will help you to see if you are dealing with a genuine, authorised firm. Access the register via the FCA website, rather than via an email link or website of a firm you have been dealing with. Be sure that the firm’s permissions match the service you are being offered.

4. Consider getting independent financial advice or guidance.

A financial adviser can recommend specific investments to you based on your situation and goals. They must be regulated by the FCA. The Government-backed Money Advice Service offers more general guidance.

5. Be careful with your personal details.

Avoid entering contact details on unfamiliar websites, particularly those advertising on search engines and social media.