Consumers face a deluge of scam ads online. New laws will give them the protections they need
The Online Safety Bill has now received Royal Assent, the final hurdle on its way to becoming law.
The change is badly needed - and one that Which? has led the way in campaigning for years. While being online has opened up so many possibilities for us to socialise with friends and family, learn new things and navigate our way to new places, there’s also a darker underbelly, teeming with fraudsters intent on stealing our personal information and ultimately money.
As many of us will know all too well, fraud is rife in the UK. It is the country’s most common crime and each year victims lose hundreds of millions of pounds. The impact isn’t just the financial losses suffered, but the emotional and psychological blow of trusting somebody who turned out to be a scammer. The anxiety and depression victims can and do suffer after they’ve been defrauded can often require medication. Some have lost life-changing sums of money in the space of a few clicks.
Most fraud starts online, especially on Facebook and Instagram - two sites each with over a billion users worldwide. It is by no means just Facebook and Instagram-owned platforms, however. Some of the world’s largest tech companies, including Google and TikTok, are also responsible for fraudsters exploiting loopholes on these sites.
During more than two years of tireless campaigning, Which? has led the charge for stronger online consumer protections and ultimately for tech giants to take more responsibility for the content that appears on their sites. These are the same companies, after all, that can showcase the technological prowess to deliver parcels within hours, but for some reason struggle to install the necessary checks on preventing fraudsters from setting up bogus accounts and targeting innocent people.
A large number of scams online are what’s called paid-for ads. The content will often be enticing: think, for instance, of copycat debt agencies, preying on consumers’ vulnerabilities amid the worst cost of living crisis in decades. Ostensibly, it’s a place to seek help from financial pressures. But in reality, it’s a convincing front for a fraudulent operation intent on tricking people into paying for debt advice - made all the more persuasive by an accompanying paid-for advertisement. Which? was responsible for new laws to include these scam ads and for them to be treated as a criminal offence alongside other major crimes, like terrorism and child abuse.
New internet safety rules will protect consumers from these online harms by forcing tech giants to make sure this fraudulent content never appears on their sites in the first place. If it does, they could face fines of up to £18 million or 10 per cent of their global annual revenue (whichever is biggest). The communications regulator Ofcom will be responsible for enforcing laws within the Bill and drawing up a code of practice for how to comply - a process which could take six to 12 months. Which? will be working closely with Ofcom to make sure fraudsters can’t reach consumers in the first place.
This is a huge moment for consumers in the fightback against fraud which has tainted far too many lives. The landmark legislation is a significant step forward in ensuring that users of some of the world’s largest platforms can enjoy them for the reasons they were created - to socialise, find information and be entertained - without fearing that scammers are using that same technology to target them.
The Online Safety Bill is now the second piece of scams-related legislation passed this year that Which? has campaigned for - following on from the Financial Services and Markets Act, which will change the law and subject banks and other payment service providers to much tougher rules when it comes to reimbursing innocent victims.
The battle against fraud won’t be won overnight: it will require government ministers, tech giants, banks, law enforcement agencies, regulators, telecoms companies and domains working together in unison. But this new law is a significant step forward in the fight back against fraudsters - and one which should be celebrated.
Rocio Concha is Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?
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