Bronwen Dalley Smith, Senior External Affairs Officer, Money and Mental Health

Is 2022 the year we finally crack down on scammers?

17 February 2022

As I started to write this blog earlier this week, an email arrived in my inbox from an anti-malware software provider with the subject line, ‘How to avoid being scammed this Valentine’s Day’. Admittedly it’s not the most traditional or romantic Valentine’s Day message, but it’s enormously timely. Scams are everywhere — in your emails, in your texts, on your social media feed — and as well evidenced, the psychological and financial damage they can cause can be devastating. 

Online scams are a particular concern for us at Money and Mental Health, given our research has found that people experiencing mental health problems are three times more likely to have fallen victim to them. That’s why we were pleased to see the government’s recent announcement that it is prioritising stamping out online scams in its forthcoming Online Safety Bill. However, while this is an important step towards cracking down on scammers, and certainly welcome progress, the government’s current plans do not go far enough in tackling all the ways scammers can target people online — specifically in failing to tackle scam ads.

Why the government’s plans to tackle scams fall short

Under these proposals, only user-generated fraudulent content — such as social media posts and content that isn’t paid-for or sponsored —  will be deemed ‘priority’ and require proactive action from tech firms. In particular, the onus will be on social media companies and search engine platforms to prevent people being exposed to fraudulent user-generated content online, instead of just needing to take it down once it’s been reported to them.

This is positive, but it is only half the battle, as these measures do nothing to crack down on scam adverts — one of the key ways fraudsters target people online. Our research shows that six in ten people in the UK have seen a scam advert online, and half see them at least monthly. It also suggests that people are more likely to have encountered scam adverts than user-generated scams.

It’s therefore critical that any plans to tackle scams include measures to crack down on scam ads, but this is where the government’s proposals fall short. Under these proposals,  scammers will just need to put a small amount of money behind their scam posts for them to become adverts — and therefore fall out of the Bill’s remit, leaving them free to remain online for people to fall victim to. Given the prevalence of online scams ads, omitting them from the Bill’s scope is a huge missed opportunity with potentially tragic consequences.

The fight to clamp down on scam ads in 2022

As those working in this space may know, including scams in the Online Safety Bill is not a new campaign ask for us. In December 2020 we published research highlighting the links between online scams and mental health, which found that common symptoms of mental health problems make it harder to identify and avoid online scams — leaving people especially vulnerable to fraudsters. Since then we’ve tried to keep the pressure on by responding to the government’s consultation on the Online Safety Bill; joining a campaign coalition of 17 organisations calling for change; writing joint letters to the committee responsible for scrutinising the legislation; and publishing another policy paper urging the government to take action. In Autumn last year, our founder and chair Martin Lewis also appeared in front of MPs and Peers in Parliament to passionately highlight the crushing impact that scams masquerading as ads can have. 

Thankfully, it hasn’t all been in vain. As this latest announcement and the recent report from the pre-legislative scrutiny committee have shown, our calls to include scams in the Bill have not gone unheard. But the fight on scam ads is by no means over. We, along with Martin and members of the coalition, will continue to beat the drum on this — and to push the government to tackle scam adverts, as well as user-generated content, in the draft Online Safety Bill due in spring. 

We’ll be keeping a close eye on developments and will continue to apply the pressure — and here’s hoping that by this time next year, advice about scams won’t be the Valentine’s Day message of choice.