The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has spent £150,000 since the start of the year promoting warnings about dodgy high-risk investment schemes in Google search results.
These products that could be identified as investment scams are often advertised on internet search engines such as Google, yet the FCA has admitted that it can’t stop them from appearing.
While the regulator’s spending can help combat the issue, only a change in the law to allow the FCA to stop these bogus investments from being visible on the internet will protect savers.
For now, investors will need to take extra precautions to ensure they don’t move money into fictitious funds.
Here, Which? explains how you can keep your money safe and how to check whether you’re dealing with an unauthorised scheme.
What is an investment scam?
An investment scam occurs when someone offers you a fake – but often convincing – opportunity to make a profit if you hand over your money.
On the face of it, the offer can seem perfectly legitimate. But in most cases you’ll lose some or all of your money because:
- the investment doesn’t exist at all;
- it exists but the scammer takes the money instead of investing it;
- the scammer pretends they’re representing a legitimate and trusted investment group, but are lying.
- Find out more: how to spot an investment scam
Could you spot an online investment scam?
Last year, Which? found that numerous high-risk investment products were being disguised as ordinary savings accounts.
We performed Google searches using phrases that an ordinary saver might use, such as ‘best cash Isa’, which returned numerous dubious offers near the top of the search rankings – several of which were paid ads on Google.
Many of these ads promised high ‘fixed returns’, but there was no mention of the possible investment risks.
Fraudulent ads can also appear on ‘genuine’ websites; just because you’re on a safe website, it doesn’t mean that what it’s advertising is also safe.
You should also be wary of other search engines and social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
These sites offer another route for scammers to attempt to reel in unsuspecting victims.
- Find out more: how to spot a social media scam
The risks of unregulated investments
One thing to watch out for is investments involving unregulated products, which aren’t covered by the rules of the FCA and tend to be much higher risk.
We’ve already seen examples of people not being compensated as a result of making unregulated investments.
For instance, when London Capital Finance (LCF) collapsed last year, nearly 12,000 people collectively lost £236m after it enabled consumers to invest in risky mini-bonds, which are unregulated.
Unregulated investments are generally not protected in the same way as regulated savings and investments, and usually can’t be recouped through the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS).
However, so far it has come to light that 159 people who transferred out of stocks and shares ISAs to invest into LCF bonds will receive compensation from the FSCS. This is because these bondholders were given ‘misleading’ advice, which is a valid claim for FSCS compensation.
The FSCS won’t be able to compensate 283 other victims, because they dealt with LCF before it was authorised to carry out financial services business in June 2016.
The rest of the claims are expected to be reviewed in the first quarter of this year.
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 this, it could be a pretty good indicator that it can’t be trusted with your money.
- Find out more: how FSCS compensation works
What to do if you think you’ve been targeted by a scammer
You can check Companies House to see whether a firm is registered as a UK company and search for the names of directors – there may be information about them online.
The FCA also strongly advises you to get independent, professional advice before making an investment.
If you think you’ve been targeted by an investment scam, you should report it to the FCA Scam Smart website.
How to report an investment scam
If you’ve lost money to a suspected investment fraud, you should report it to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 or on its website.
Beware of being targeted by a scammer in the future, particularly if you’ve already lost money to one.
Fraudulent companies may take advantage of this and offer to help you get some or all of your money back.
- Find out more: how to report a scam
Join the Which? Stamp out Scams campaign
Our Stamp out Scams campaign was set up to demand that all banks refund innocent victims of scams and do much more to prevent this fraud in the first place.
Help us with our campaign by signing our petition.