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2 Jul 2021

Google tightens rules to stamp out scam ads

Will Google's new rules put a stop to the avalanche of online scams?

Google is taking aim at rogue financial services advertisers, following increasing pressure from UK campaigners and regulators to stamp out scams.

The new Google Ads Financial Products and Services policy introduces stricter requirements for firms promoting financial services in the UK. Enforcement will take effect from 6 September 2021.

Multiple Which? investigations have found that scammers are paying to appear at the top of Google search results - often posing as genuine financial services firms and luring would-be investors with the promise of high returns.

Earlier this year, Which? joined a coalition of organisations to urge the government to ensure big tech companies such as Google and Facebook are held legally responsible for fraudulent adverts under the forthcoming Online Safety Bill.

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What is Google changing?

New Google verification requirements mean that all financial services advertisers targeting the UK must demonstrate that they are authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) or qualify for one of the limited exemptions.

Google will publish the policy update on 30 August 2021, and enforcement will take effect seven days later. Advertisers that haven't completed the updated verification process in time will no longer be allowed to show financial services ads of any kind in the UK.

Ronan Harris of Google UK & Ireland said: 'Today's announcement reflects significant progress in delivering a safer experience for users, publishers and advertisers. While we understand that this policy update will impact a range of advertisers in the financial services space, our utmost priority is to keep users safe on our platforms - particularly in an area targeted by fraudsters. We are committed to leading on necessary changes to help fight online scammers.'

Google has also joined Stop Scams UK - the first major technology firm to do so - and pledged $5m in advertising credits to support public awareness campaigns in the UK.

Will this stop scammers from taking out Google ads?

Google is recognising that it must take far greater responsibility for fraudulent adverts that lead to financial scams.Its new policy affects all financial services advertisers, regardless of whether the products they are promoting are regulated by the FCA.

If implemented properly, these checks could wipe out many scams which rely on paid-for adverts to find victims. However, stricter policies mean very little without enforcement and Google has repeatedly failed to use its existing rules to stop rogue advertisers.

For example, it already requires firms to submit personal legal identification and business incorporation documents. It also strengthened its unreliable claims policy, to stop firms advertising unrealistic rates of return with minimal risk.

Despite this, many of the firms added to the FCA warning list are easily slipping through the net. Recent examples include best-isa-comparisons.com (which advertised on Google on 28 June 2021) and fixed-rate-finder.com (21 June 2021).

We asked Google how it will check that the information provided by financial services advertisers is genuine. It told us it has robust processes in place to verify that advertisers are who they say they are.

It's also unclear if Google has appropriate measures in place to ensure that advertisers don't falsely claim that their content is outside of the scope of Financial Services advertising. For example, Which? reported malicious adverts providing fake phone numbers for e-money provider Revolut three times in one year. We believe these scammers may not have been classified as a financial services advertiser.

We asked Google how its new policy would address this type of scam (if at all). It only explained that from 30 August 2021 onwards, requiring financial services advertisers to demonstrate that they are FCA-authorised aims to restrict those who advertise financial services or products to legitimate businesses. In early 2020, Google asked for notifications of the FCA warning list and it takes action on all domains shared.

Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said: 'The success of these changes will be judged by whether they stem the tide of scam adverts and will depend on Google effectively enforcing its policies to prevent fraudsters from luring in victims on its platform.

'To ensure the right protections are put in place for consumers, the government must urgently give online platforms, including search engines and social media companies, a legal responsibility to prevent, identify and remove fake and fraudulent content on their sites.'

Listen to the Which? Money Podcast

Earlier this year we explored how the pandemic was giving criminals another way to scam unsuspecting victims.

Listen to the episode below to find out how to stay safe and how Which? can help you stay one step ahead.