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Updated: 1 Apr 2021

Which? calls for urgent Government action to protect people against online scams

Social media and internet giants must take responsibility for scam content on their platforms

Consumers must be protected from being scammed online, with social media and internet giants held to account for fraudulent content published on their platforms.

Which? is calling for online platforms, including social media sites, to be given greater responsibility to prevent scam content appearing on their platforms. The government has a perfect opportunity to deliver this in the upcoming Online Harms Bill, and if not ministers must set out their proposals for further legislative action to effectively protect consumers from online scams.

The Online Harms Bill is a new law being proposed in the UK that will aim to make the internet safer.

A mixed-method research project conducted by Which? - that involved an online community with 50 Facebook users followed by a nationally representative survey engaging 1,700 Facebook users - found that many users of the platform aren't aware of the risks of scams.

It found a third of participants in our online community did not know fake products could be advertised on the site, and a quarter didn't spot an advert for an investment scam with fake endorsements from celebrities.

If replicated across Facebook's UK user base of 44 million people, thousands of users could be vulnerable to losing money to fraudsters.

All ages vulnerable to being scammed

The research also showed 30% of Facebook users were aware of Facebook's scam advert reporting tool introduced to the site in 2019. And a third of those who knew about it (10% of Facebook users surveyed) had actually used it when they'd seen a suspicious ad.

Those surveyed said they were sceptical about the effectiveness of Facebook's systems and processes for dealing with fraudulent content.

Older social media users said they were more concerned about scams and are also perceived as being more at risk, according to the research. But the findings suggest that younger people could be more susceptible to scams as they are more likely to take part in quizzes in which they give away personal information, and feel more confident about shopping online.

Although the research focused on Facebook due to its size and influence, Which? believes the findings and implications can be extended to other social networking sites and online platforms such as Instagram and Twitter.

Huge financial and emotional costs

In the year up to June 2020, Action Fraud received 822,276 reports of fraud, with total losses of £2.3bn. Action Fraud estimates 85% of these scams were 'cyber-enabled' - i.e. perpetrated through the use of the internet.

The financial consequences for those affected by these kinds of scams can be devastating, but so too is the lasting emotional impact the incidents can have.

One victim, in his seventies, lost almost £100,000 to a Bitcoin scam ran by a company called Fibonetix after he saw an online advert with fake endorsements from celebrities including MoneySavingExpert's Martin Lewis and businesswoman Deborah Meaden.

He told Which?: 'Being scammed in this way was utterly devastating. I think about it virtually every day and it's really affected my confidence, my ability to make decisions and has ultimately changed the person that I am.

'Fortunately, I have been able to get through it with the support of my family.'

Another victim was searching for investment advice on Google and ended up falling for an incredibly sophisticated scam, which took place over several weeks. She lost £30,000.

She told us: 'It's been really traumatic. At the time it felt like no one cared or wanted to discuss my case with me. It breaks you as a human being and leaves you scared of the outside world.

'It's still hard to trust yourself and others. Often people think these things only happen to older people and it takes a long time to not feel like an idiot. There's a lot of shame and despair which hasn't gone away and I'm still awaiting closure to this day.'

Her case is currently being investigated by the Financial Ombudsman Service.

'The time for serious action on online scams is now'

Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?, said: 'The financial and emotional toll of scams can be devastating and it is clear that social media firms such as Facebook are failing to step up and properly protect users from fraudsters on their sites.

'The time for serious action on online scams is now. If the government doesn't grasp the opportunity to deliver this in the upcoming Online Harms Bill, it must urgently come forward with new proposals to stem the growing tide of sophisticated scams by criminals online.'

Have you been a victim of an online scam? How has it affected you? Get in touch with us at scamwatch@which.co.uk.