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Consumer Rights.

13 October 2021

How to spot and report fake and fraudulent search engine ads

Don’t get caught out by fake or fraudulent search ads that can put your personal data and money at risk. Here we walk you through how to spot and report fake search engine ads.
LJ
Luke Jeffery

What is a search advert?

Often, when you use a search engine, like Google or Bing, it will target you with adverts. Usually appearing in your search results, designed to capture your attention and your clicks. 

A common example is the simple ‘paid search ad’ that appears at the top of the search results.

Shopping ads, display ads, and even local ads all fight for your attention. What adverts you see depends on what you’ve searched for.

For example, Google - the most popular search engine -  has online search ads that include:

  • Paid search ads - These are the basic search engine ads. Companies pay for search ads to appear at the top of Google targeting certain ‘keywords’ people use to search with. 
  • Shopping ads -  Shopping ads appear when a user is actively looking for something to buy. Most online retailers use them and they can help compare two or more products at the same time. 
  • Local search ads - These usually appear when you’re searching for queries with ‘near me’. This could be for local services or retailers.

Three tips to spot a fake search ad

There are ways to spot a dodgy ad when you’re searching the web, but due to the nature of search engine ads, they’re not always easy to spot.

1. Suspicious links

Some ads will be marked with a headline that suggests the result is relevant but the link accompanying the ad will be completely different. 

In most ads, the link URL will closely match the heading of the ad, but in some cases the URL will have no clear link to the text on the ad - those are dodgy ads. 

2. Prices are too good to be true

Shopping ads can be particularly eye-catching. Low priced items appearing at the top of search results are instantly attractive and more likely to tempt you to click through to the website behind the ad.

When the price is too good to be true, you should be wary.  Previous investigations into dodgy shopping ads have unveiled companies that mislead users with low prices and high discounts on expensive items, only to find that prices on the website don’t match the ads.

3. Local search ads with too many five star reviews

We’ve all used online reviews to determine whether we should visit a shop, restaurant or local service, but it is possible for scammers to buy fake reviews that help boost their listing to the top of local search results.

Even in this space, scammers and malicious actors can buy search ads, even if their service is irrelevant to what you’re searching for.

Take time to read through the reviews if there is a high percentage of five star ratings. This can help determine whether the reviews can be trusted or not, don’t always assume that a high star rating is legitimate. 

Ask yourself these questions if you’ve stumbled across a listing with tonnes of five star reviews:

  1. Are there reviews that match word for word? 
  2. Were loads of reviews posted at the same time? 
  3. Do they make excessive use of over the top language praising a product? 
  4. Does it contain a lot of images or include very specific information?

For more information on how to detect the tell tale signs of a fake review, take a look at our guide on spotting fake reviews.

How do I report suspicious search ads?

You can report suspicious ads straight to the search engine. These include Google’s display ads that might be hosted on other websites. You can report an ad using Google’s form, your submission will then be reviewed against Google’s advertising guidelines.

Google says ad reviews are completed within one working day but might take longer in more complex cases.

If you’ve found a suspicious search ad on Bing you can report it to Microsoft, who own the search engine. To report an ad you can fill out an online form where you’re asked to write in the search term you used and the URL behind the ad. 

To report an ad on YouTube select the info icon on the ad, this is the 'i' inside a circle displayed within the ad, and click ‘Report this ad’.  Alternatively, you can fill in this ‘Report an ad’ form on Google’s support website. It can also be used to report a Google search ad.

You can also report scam or fake ads to the Advertising Standards Authority who will help raise a complaint against the hosting platform.

For guidance on reporting a scam, you can read our guide to how to report a scam.

Which? scam sharer tool

If you’ve seen or been affected by what you think is a scam or suspicious ad, sharing the details can help us inform others about them and what tactics scammers might be using to mislead consumers. Reported scams feed into our research and policy work so we can warn more people.

The Which? Scam Sharer tool helps collect information relating to experiences of scams. If you have lost money to a scam, report this to your bank, the police or Action Fraud.