The reactive approach taken by the world’s biggest online platforms to tackle fraudulent adverts allows harmful scams to slip through the net, Which? research suggests.
43% of scam victims conned by an advert they saw online, via a search engine or social media ad, said they didn’t report the scam to the platform hosting it, according to a Which? survey.
Worryingly, 51% of 1,870 search engine users we surveyed said they didn’t even know how to report dodgy ads that appear in their search listings.
And 35% of 1,630 social media users said they didn’t know how to report a suspicious advert they’d seen on social media.
The most common reasons given for not reporting were that users couldn’t be bothered (22%) or that it was too time-consuming (22%).
As the web’s biggest platforms rely heavily on users reporting scams in order to stop them, these findings question whether this is really an effective approach to tackling fraudulent content.
In recent years, internet giants Google, Facebook and Twitter say they have focused on improving scam reporting tools on their content.
But Which? thinks a more proactive approach, focusing on stopping scam ads from appearing in the first place, could be more effective.
These kinds of scams cause significant financial and emotional damage. And because fake adverts are paid for, the platforms hosting them are potentially profiting from criminal activity.
The survey also suggested that some platforms may be particularly attractive to scammers. Of those surveyed, 27% said they’d fallen for a scam advert online they saw on Facebook. One in five said a scam targeted them through Google adverts.
In contrast, just 3% said they’d been tricked by an advert on Twitter.
The persistence of scam adverts
An example of how fake ads operate is shoe retailer scams that have been circulating on social media for several years. We’ve heard from hundreds of people who have been affected by these scams.
Fraudsters hook victims in with fake adverts using the logos and branding of established footwear brands like Clarks and Russell and Bromley.
The ads promote clearance sales or attractive seasonal discounts and link through to convincing copycat websites set up to steal your money.
Victims either never receive what they’ve paid for, or receive something much cheaper that they didn’t order, such as fake designer sunglasses or costume jewellery.
If the adverts are removed by the platform, the scammers simply set up again under a different account with new ads.
One victim, Mandy, told us she was tricked by a fake Clarks ‘clearance sale’ advert she saw on Facebook. She paid £85 for two pairs of boots, but instead she received a large box containing a pair of cheap sunglasses.
‘I’ve had a lot of back and forth with my bank over the past six months, trying to prove that I didn’t receive what I ordered,’ Mandy said.
Facebook has since removed this advert and the advertiser’s account.
Another victim, Derek, told us a similar story after he was conned by a similar fake Clarks advert online. Fortunately, he managed to stop the payment for £29.93.
A third victim we spoke to told us they were taken in by the same scam after they clicked through to a website from an ad for ‘Clarks shoes outlet sale’ that appeared in search listings on Google. The victim said the URL and site design looked just like a legitimate Clarks website, but it wasn’t.
The problem of account hopping
If you click through on one scam ad, social media feed algorithms tend to recommend similar content – including similar scams.
One victim of a scam ad, Stefan, told us he had repeatedly reported a scam retailer operating under the names ‘Swanbrooch’ and ‘Omerga’ to Facebook. He believes the social media site has a ‘scattergun’ approach to removing the ads.
‘The company is operating and advertising under different names on Facebook. As soon as one account is closed by Facebook, they just open another and do it all again,’ Stefan told us.
Facebook has since closed the adverts we found associated with these companies.
But the victim told us that a week rarely goes by when he doesn’t spot dodgy ads in his newsfeed, posted by what he suspects are underhand companies.
‘Some of these companies have hundreds of complaints on their posts and negative reviews all over the internet. It’s obvious they’re up to no good,’ he said.
Scammers account-hop, opening accounts to post scam ads for a limited time to reel in victims. After they’ve had some success, they remove their ads and close their accounts to avoid being reported, stopped or banned.
Scam adverts online are especially dangerous because they can be targeted at the demographics that fraudsters think might be more susceptible to their schemes. Anyone placing an advert can choose exactly who sees it and can narrow their target audience by factors such as age range, location and interests.
Reporting scam adverts online
If the majority of victims affected by these scams aren’t reporting them, these scam adverts will continue to catch people out.
We found a lot of jargon used by platforms in their reporting processes that might be confusing and overcomplicate reporting.
When reporting an advert, platforms often ask if it is ‘breaking the platform’s rules’ or ‘committing a violation’ rather than asking whether you suspect it’s a scam. The platform’s rules will usually say that false advertising or criminal activity is not allowed.
Platforms have committed to improving their reporting processes. But how easy is it to report fraudulent ads on the most popular platforms?
Facebook makes reporting easy, but users don’t trust the platform to take action
Facebook offers a comprehensive reporting tool to help its users raise the alarm about harmful content.
A visible ‘Report this ad’ button features on all its promoted content, followed by user-friendly reporting options that includes a choice to report an advert as a scam. Users are also given the opportunity to send more information about the nature of a potentially fraudulent ad if they’d like to.
Despite 57% of those who had been scammed through a Facebook ad agreeing that they thought Facebook’s reporting process was straightforward, almost a third said they didn’t report it because they didn’t believe the platform would do anything about it. However, only one in four victims (26%) who did report it said the scam ad wasn’t removed after they reported it to Facebook.
Victims also told us they weren’t able to report the dodgy post that had conned them because they couldn’t find the same advert again.
It’s almost impossible to find an ad that’s appeared on your Facebook newsfeed once you’ve left the platform or refreshed your feed. Ads appear and disappear quickly.
The fleeting appearance of adverts on the platform makes it easy for fraudsters to stay under the radar and may be one reason why Facebook is so attractive to scammers that use fake ads as a tactic.
A Facebook spokesperson said: ‘Fraudulent activity is not allowed on Facebook and we have taken action on a number of pages reported to us by Which?. Our 35,000 strong team of safety and security experts work alongside sophisticated AI to proactively identify and remove this content, and we urge people to report any suspicious activity to us.
‘Our teams disable billions of fake accounts every year and we have donated £3 million to Citizens Advice to deliver a UK Scam Action Programme.’
Google’s reporting form is hard to find and time-consuming
It’s difficult to work out how to report suspicious adverts that appear in Google’s search results. We weren’t surprised that our survey found that one in three Google users didn’t know how to do this.
It’s not obvious that you need to click the ‘Why this ad?’ button in order to report a possible scam. After you’ve clicked ‘Why this ad’ the ‘Report this ad link’ towards the button of the pop-up window is easy to miss.
We think a clearer ‘report this ad’ style button, similar to social media platforms, would make the process more accessible to users.
The process takes the user through five steps to submit a report. Each stage requires detailed reading of complex information to complete.
It seems like the effort might not be worth it in some cases. Over a third (34%) of victims of a scam advert who reported it to Google said the advert wasn’t removed.
We asked Google if it had any intention to make its reporting process clearer. According to Google, it’s ‘constantly reviewing ads, sites and accounts to ensure they comply with our policies. As a result of our enforcement actions (proactive and reactive), our team blocked or removed over 3.1 billion ads for violating our policies.’
It said: ‘As part of the various ways we are tackling bad ads, we also encourage people to flag bad actors they’re seeing via our support tool where you can report bad ads directly. It can easily be found on Search when looking for “How to report bad ads on Google” and filling out the necessary information. It is simple for consumers to provide the required information for the Google ads team to act accordingly.’
It added: “We have strict policies that govern the kinds of ads that we allow to run on our platform. We enforce those policies vigorously, and if we find ads that are in violation we remove them. We utilize a mix of automated systems and human review to enforce our policies.”
Twitter responds quickly but lacks scam reporting options
We found Twitter’s reporting process to be quick and simple to use. However, there’s no option to specifically report an advert that could be a scam.
This could be off-putting to some users trying to report an ad if they aren’t sure if it’s the right reporting process for scam content.
But Twitter users told us it was responsive to reports about scam adverts. Four dodgy adverts we were told about – one of which promoted an investment firm with a misconduct warning from the Financial Conduct Authority – had already been taken down when we investigated them.
We asked Twitter about this and a spokesperson told us:
‘Where we identify violations of our rules, we take robust enforcement action. We’re constantly adapting to bad actors’ evolving methods, and we will continue to iterate and improve upon our policies as the industry evolves.”’
Stop scammers posting ads
Which? is calling for platforms to take a preventative approach to fraudulent content, rather than allowing scammers to post freely and relying on users to raise the alarm when things go wrong. By this point, the damage has been done.
Adam French, Consumer Rights Expert at Which?, said:
‘Our latest research has exposed significant flaws with the reactive approach taken by tech giants including Google and Facebook in response to the reporting of fraudulent content – leaving victims worryingly exposed to scams.
‘Which? has launched a free scam alert service to help consumers familiarise themselves with the latest tactics used by fraudsters, but there is no doubt that tech giants, regulators and the government need to go to greater lengths to prevent scams from flourishing.
‘Online platforms must be given a legal responsibility to identify, remove and prevent fake and fraudulent content on their sites. The case for including scams in the Online Safety Bill is overwhelming and the government needs to act now.’
Have you been affected by a scam advert online?
If you’ve lost money to a fraudulent or misleading advert that’s targeted you online, you should be able to get your money back, especially if you paid using a debit or credit card. You can find out what you can do from our guide to getting your money back after a scam.
As well as reporting the advert to the platform that’s hosting it, you can report scams to Action Fraud, or if you’re in Scotland, by calling 101.
Are you seeing ads online that you know are scams? Help our research by telling us about the scams you’ve seen.
(Survey methodology: Opinium, on behalf of Which?, conducted an online survey of 2,000 nationally representative UK adults aged 18+ between 19th and 23rd February 2021)