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Now is the time to crack down on online ad criminals

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Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?

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

4 min read Partner content

The Online Safety Bill was a step in the right direction, but the Government needs to do more to remove loopholes that put consumers at risk during the cost of living crisis.

Once upon a time, the quickest way to make one million pounds was to go on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and answer 15 general knowledge questions. Now, according to new Which? research, organised crime gangs can make roughly this amount in 24 hours by exploiting glaring gaps in regulation and bombarding websites with fraudulent adverts.

We all see online advertising every day when we’re browsing websites. Some of it is helpful as it can direct us to buying products we want. But there’s a darker side of the online ads we see - and some can lead to consumers suffering financial and psychological harm. Currently only one per cent of the digital advertising supply chain is safe from potential fraudulent activity. 

Fraudulent advertising has been found on sites that millions of consumers use daily, including news websites. Scammers will stop at nothing to try to deceive anybody they can - with the cost of living crisis the latest useful hook to lure in victims. An advert explaining a ‘simple trick to lower fuel consumption by 55 per cent’ features a hand trying to place a bottle of Coca Cola in a car’s fuel tank - a clear example of clickbait that attempts to entice the browser to another site, but also a sufficiently tempting prospect to convince some readers. 

Investment scams are also rife. Many of us will have seen the faces of famous celebrities, like Sir Richard Branson, Martin Lewis, or Deborah Meaden, purportedly ‘endorsing’ investment or get-rich-quick schemes to make them seem more legitimate. If consumers viewing these are struggling to make ends meet, the ads - featuring well-known people they may admire or respect - could make them believe that they’re a few clicks away from a fortune, when in reality they’re passing over sensitive information that scammers can use to con them out of their cash. 

Outside of America, the UK has the highest volume of scam advert victims - mainly because English-speaking countries are the primary targets for criminals involved. Threats to consumers include malicious clickbait, fake software updates and forced redirects to other webpages, which can all result in consumer data and devices being compromised, as well as direct financial loss. 

Which? commissioned cyber security experts Beruku Identity to examine the murky fraudulent advertising ecosystem in greater depth. Our report shows how fraudulent advertising is perpetrated by sophisticated organised criminal groups that will repeatedly create new identities and fake media agencies. This means they can constantly pop up again under new guises when their fraudulent ads are finally removed from websites. So, rather than being an effective solution to the problem of fraudulent ads, the current reactive “take-down” approach to dealing with the crime is already factored into the business model for these criminals. 

This type of fraud also flourishes predominantly because of the complexity of the programmatic advertising buying process, which often involves a number of different players. Tech giants claim self-regulation works - but Which? research has repeatedly exposed the shortcomings, from investment ads on Google to other types of fraud committed by social media users and through fake reviews posted by bogus Amazon sellers.

The stark reality is that organised crime groups don’t take days off

The government, through its Online Safety Bill, has pledged to clamp down on fake and fraudulent advertising found on large social media sites and search engines, and will give Ofcom the powers to regulate them. This is a very important step in the right direction. However, there remain large swaths across the rest of the internet that will continue to be ruthlessly exploited by sophisticated scammers - and they must be addressed. 

While the Advertising Standards Authority does a good job of spotting bad adverts, it currently has no powers to require online platforms and ad tech providers to have systems to prevent scammers from publishing an advert. We need a regulator that ensures due diligence throughout the online advertising ecosystem, and requires platforms and intermediaries to collect and share data on scams. 

The stark reality is that organised crime groups don’t take days off. The current process of tackling fake and fraudulent advertising online is more akin to a game of whack-a-mole: without tough preventative action and a shared approach of reporting for those in the supply chain, they will continue to re-emerge. 

The government has done commendable work on its Online Safety Bill to make the digital world a safer place to be. Which? believes that the government must continue stepping forward and remove the loopholes that put consumers at risk of emotional and financial loss - at a time when many of them can least afford it. 

Rocio Concha is Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?

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