Brian Semple, Head of External Affairs, Money and Mental Health
A campaign win: the government acts on our call to tackle online scam adverts
8 March 2022
Today we’ve had some really exciting news! The government has announced that its new Online Safety Bill will give social media platforms and search engines a legal duty to prevent scam adverts from appearing on their services. This means that companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook will be legally obliged to stop scammers advertising on their platforms, instead of leaving people to fend for themselves.
This is a really big win for Money and Mental Health – and the cross-sector coalition of organisations we’ve been working with – which will see the government take vital action on online scam adverts. It brings us an important step closer to ending the financial and psychological harm that scammers can cause.
Scams and mental health
Our research has shown that common symptoms of mental health problems — such as impaired decision-making and reduced concentration — can make it much harder for people to identify and avoid online scams. It’s no surprise then that people with mental health problems are three times more likely to have been the victim of an online scam compared to the wider population.
These crimes can wreak absolute havoc with people’s finances and mental health. But as our research has shown, huge gaps in consumer protections have allowed scammers to act with impunity.
Our campaign for change
Last year we teamed up with a cross-sector coalition of organisations including Which?, MoneySaving Expert, UK Finance and the City of London Police to push the government to act on these issues. In particular, we called on the government to include online scams in the scope of its Online Safety Bill, its flagship legislation for tackling online harms.
Our campaigning led to a partial victory in May 2021, when the government announced that the Online Safety Bill would include measures to tackle ‘user-generated’ scam content, such as unpaid-for fraudulent social media posts or romance scams. This was an important step to reduce the harms that scams can cause.
The need to crack down on online scam adverts
But tackling user-generated content was far from enough. By doing nothing to tackle the bigger threat posed by scam adverts — which according to our research around 50% of UK adults encounter each month — the government’s plans still left a gaping hole in consumer protections against online financial crime.
That’s why today’s announcement is so significant. When the Online Safety Bill is introduced into Parliament in the coming weeks, it will give companies and search engines a legal duty to prevent scam adverts from appearing on their platforms. If they don’t act, they can expect to face regulatory action from Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator.
These measures will make a big difference in strengthening online protections for everyone. But they are particularly important for people with mental health problems, given the greater risk they face of falling victim to a scam.
Today’s announcement is also a big victory for our Research Community members who have shared their experiences of online scams, and helped us campaign for change. Your support has been integral to our campaigning.
But this is a complex issue, and there will be much to unpick when the full details of the Online Safety Bill are published. We will be ready to analyse the legislation, and to work with the government, parliamentarians, and other campaigners to make sure that the Bill leaves no hiding places or gaps that scammers can exploit.