Which? is concerned that online marketing for financial products is blurring the line between cash savings accounts and high-risk investments – putting huge numbers of savers in danger of losing their life savings.
This year, the average interest rate on cash savings accounts has fallen each month since January. In September 2019 it stood at just 1.64% AER.
So if you’re searching online for the ‘best savings rate’, an ad for an account guaranteeing 9% interest is bound to pique your interest.
But the truth is, no regulated cash savings product can offer this kind of rate. In fact, what you’ve found is an investment product that will come with the inherent risk of losing your cash.
Here, we explain how some online savings ads are exploiting savers’ confusion, and how to avoid taking more risk than you want to with your money.
Could you spot an ad for a high-risk investment?
As part of our research into online marketing targeted at savers, Which? ran a series of online searches for popular savings terms.
These included ‘best cash Isa’, ‘best savings rate’, ‘best Isa rates’ and ‘cash Isa comparison.’
Numerous high-risk investment products showed up in the results, several of which were paid ads on Google – those prominently appearing at the top and bottom of results pages.
Many of these ads promised high ‘fixed returns’, but there was no mention of the investment risk involved.
When we surveyed 2,010 people in July 2019, we found that 66% of people who have opened a cash Isa or savings account have done at least some research online before making a decision.
Nearly a quarter use a search engine to explore their options, which would bring up the kind of paid ads we’d found.
Across the UK, this equates to more than a million prospective people who could be heavily influenced by online ads or internet search results promoting these products.
Accounts that aren’t what they seem
To see how these marketing tactics could be influencing savers, we showed a selection of Google paid ads for financial products to a group of savers.
The products had varying levels of risks, and we asked which they would want more information about if they were looking for a new cash savings account.
A cash Isa from Nationwide appealed the most, with a third of the group picking out this ad. But worryingly, a substantial number of people said they were most interested in ads for investment products from two firms promising generous ‘asset-backed fixed returns’ of as much as 9%: one in five savers were drawn to an ad from Daily Investor, and one in seven pointed to UK Bond Hub’s ad.
Neither included any information in their ads to make it clear that – unlike a cash savings account – your money would be at risk.
We tried to contact both companies, but were unable to get a response.
A spokesperson for the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said: ‘In relation to those specific adverts on Google, the FCA does not pre-vet advertisements and we cannot comment on a particular firm’s promotions. However, we are aware that Google searches for financial products and services can return misleading results and many of these scams involve financial products which we don’t regulate under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000.
‘The scale of the challenge calls for concerted action from everyone involved, pooling our resources and expertise to maximise impact.’
‘We have made it clear to regulated firms that if they are approving financial promotions, even for products that are not regulated, they must ensure they are fair, clear and not misleading. And that we will take action against firms who don’t meet those requirements.’
- Find out more: how to find the best savings account
The risks of unregulated investments
We’ve already seen instances of people losing their life savings as a result of making high-risk investments without fully understanding the implications.
When London Capital Finance (LCF) collapsed at the beginning of this year, almost 12,000 people collectively lost £236m. It’s still unclear whether they’ll be able to get any of their money back.
Many savers were attracted by the high returns offered, and felt reassured that LCF was authorised by the FCA. Crucially, however, the risky mini-bonds it sold were not regulated.
This means people’s cash was not protected in the same way as regulated savings and investments, and could not be recouped through the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS).
Among the savers we spoke to during our research, nine in 10 people were unaware that regulated companies can sell unregulated products.
We believe that savers need much greater clarity about the risks involved when investing in unregulated products, and that more needs to be done to tackle misleading marketing practices that downplay these risks.
Four things savers should watch out for
Putting your money in an unregulated investment product isn’t always a bad move – the key is to make sure you fully understand the risks you’re taking.
There is the potential for higher returns than those offered by cash savings accounts, but you should never invest money you can’t afford to lose.
When looking for a new home for your savings, follow these steps to avoid taking more risk than you want:
- Question high interest rates and ‘guaranteed’ returns: the best fixed-term savings accounts currently pay less than 3% AER. Any account offering a higher rate of interest is likely to be a riskier investment product – with the exception of a few regular savers and high-interest current accounts that only pay interest on a small amount of money.
- Check the FCA register: if a financial firm claims it is registered, check it against the FCA register, and look at which regulatory permissions it has. While FCA regulation doesn’t guarantee the products offered are regulated, it does mean that the company has to follow FCA rules, and you can complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) if it doesn’t.
- Question the FSCS protection: if it’s not clear whether a product has FSCS protection, you should ask the company directly and keep a record of its answer. If the company won’t confirm, think twice about entrusting the company with your money.
- Take independent financial advice: some unregulated firms are legitimate, but some may be scams. A financial adviser will be able to help you avoid these – and you’ll have recourse for complaint if anything goes wrong.
- Based on original reporting by Ceri Stanaway for Which? Money Magazine. The full investigation appeared in the October 2019 issue. You can try Which? Money today for just £1 to have our impartial, jargon-free insight delivered to your door every month.