Online scams skyrocket as toll reaches £1.7bn in a year

Lucy Harley-McKeown
·4-min read
Search Engine, Searching, Internet, Web Page
Much of the growth in scams has been fuelled by criminals shifting their activities online. Photo: Getty

Fraudsters are being left to run riot online as search engines leave victims exposed to sophisticated scams that are costing them huge sums of money.

According to consumer group Which?, scams have skyrocketed in recent years and since the start of the coronavirus crisis. Which? analysis of Action Fraud figures suggests victims lost £1.7bn ($2.4bn) over 12 months – which works out at £3,234 reported lost to scams every minute. Many scams will also have gone unreported over this period, 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.

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%), adverts on Facebook (9%) or other non-social media or search engine online adverts (8%).

The consequences for victims can be devastating. Average 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.

The tech giants claim they are taking strong action to crack down on fraud. Yet a Which? investigation found search giants Google and Microsoft’s Bing are failing to get to grips with an explosion of fake and fraudulent adverts that lead to the scams, while the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is unable to effectively police online fraudsters using these sites.

Google and Microsoft are paid significant sums of money from adverts that lead to scams or that are posted by unauthorised firms. These can remain live for weeks even after the financial regulator has issued public warnings about them.

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Although legitimate investment comparison sites do exist – and may advertise on search engines – Which?’s investigation found dozens of investment comparison sites advertising on Google or Bing that were already on the FCA warning list or soon would be. This suggests there are significant flaws in the monitoring processes used by the search engines.

One example of this came from consumer finance campaigner and former accountant Mark Taber, who told Which? that Google was still hosting adverts for bondcompare.org.uk, a website linked to a clone scam, almost four weeks after it was reported to the FCA on 17 November 2020. Although the financial watchdog added the site to an existing warning on 10 December, Google continued to carry the ads until 14 December and the site was not shut down until 4 February 2021.

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 Limited, 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 regulated company MoneySuperMarket. These scam emails were sent from moneysuper@net-shopping.com 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.

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.

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Which? 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.

A Google spokesperson said it takes misleading ads "very seriously" and considers them as violations of their policies. They said: “Protecting consumers and credible businesses operating in the financial sector is a priority for us, which merits careful rules and enforcement."

A Microsoft spokesperson 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."

Microsoft encourages people to report possible deceptive or fraudulent ads and check suspect posts against FCA registers.

Comparebondrates.com and Lead Generation Limited had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.

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