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Glaring loophole in Online Safety Bill must be closed to ensure victims get the protection they need from scams

Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?

Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which? | Which?

4 min read Partner content

Britain is in the grip of a fraud epidemic. Fraud is easily the most common type of crime and last year represented almost two in five of all reported crime incidents. That’s more than theft, violent and knife crime combined.

Fraudsters will exploit any opportunity to part people from their cash and sensitive personal information. This was apparent at the start of the coronavirus pandemic and unfortunately has shown no signs of abating in light of recent events.  

Take the unscrupulous fraudsters pushing bogus Ukraine war charity appeals through fake emails and social-media posts in an effort to take advantage of the crisis and people’s willingness to help. 

Almost inevitably, criminals are also luring vulnerable consumers by exploiting the cost of living crisis, through a swarm of phone calls and text messages about ‘urgent’ energy bills that need to be paid.

Even Easter is not off limits, with Cadbury recently having to put out a scam warning about posts circulating on social media claiming to offer consumers a free Easter Chocolate basket.

We know that the knock-on effects for victims are devastating. Not only does fraud often involve losing life-changing sums of money but victims have told us how it can leave emotional scars that make everyday living much tougher as they battle the hit to confidence and self-esteem.  

One key way that victims are lured in by criminals is through platforms most of us use every day – search engines like Google and Bing. 

Often people do not realise that dodgy companies can pay to be at the top of search results having only gone through limited checks by the search engines. So savers looking to boost their investments or shoppers simply looking for a bargain pair of shoes click on the first result they see and may fall into a trap left by fraudsters.

Before they know it they are handing over their bank or card details for something that has the veneer of authenticity but is actually a calculated scam perpetrated by criminals. 

The inclusion of paid-for advertising in the Online Safety Bill is a really important step forward in tackling the problem. It puts far more legal responsibility on the biggest tech firms to tackle this type of fraud – and is something that Which? and a wide range of other organisations have been campaigning for.

However following the Bill’s publication we are concerned it does not go far enough to stop this flood of scams on search engines. As the Bill is currently drafted, search engines are subject to weaker provisions than social media firms on tackling paid-for advertising fraud, creating a dangerous loophole in protections that scammers will undoubtedly exploit.

The Bill gives large social media platforms a requirement to prevent fraudulent paid-for advertising from appearing on their sites or to swiftly take down the fraudulent paid-for advert once it is reported. 

On the other hand, although also subject to Ofcom Codes of Practice on fraudulent advertising, large search engines such as Google will be subject to a less stringent legal duty. They will only be required to “minimise the risk” of individuals encountering fraudulent paid-for advertising content on their site, with no express obligation in the Bill to prevent a fraudulent advert from appearing on their service or remove it once reported to them.

By leaving this loophole for fraudsters to exploit, they could feasibly turn their attention away from social media platforms and funnel their resources into exploiting search engines further instead. There is a risk of a surge in fraudulent paid-for advertising content on these sites, as often highly sophisticated criminals focus on platforms they know have less stringent obligations.

Social media and search platforms may be different, but their advertising mechanisms are similar, so we see no justifiable reason as to why they have been given different duties in the Bill.

The Bill must be amended to include a clear duty for major search engines to use their sophisticated technology to prevent this type of content from appearing on their sites, minimise the time it's online and swiftly remove it when it is reported. It is also vital that the Bill requires that search engines make it easier for consumers to report and complain about fraudulent paid-for advertisements.

The government must ensure Ofcom has effective legal powers to tackle the issue appropriately with search engines, but also that the regulator has sufficient resources to enforce the Bill’s provisions in advance of the Bill being passed into law.

Although the Bill gives Ofcom a series of robust enforcement mechanisms, there is a real danger that the new laws will be worthless if they can’t be policed properly. If Ofcom is given the tools to come down hard against the biggest platforms but does not have the necessary resources to make use of them, that will be a gift to the criminals.

The government has already taken the crucial step of including paid-for advertising in the Online Safety Bill. It is vital that it does not foil its own plans by giving fraudsters an escape route.  

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