Rachel Fergusson, External Affairs Intern, Money and Mental Health

Online Safety Bill: Martin Lewis calls on MPs to include scam ads

20 October 2021

On Monday afternoon, our founder and chair Martin Lewis appeared in front of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, calling for scam adverts to be included in the scope of the legislation. He urged MPs and Peers to remove the “farcical” distinction between user-generated scams – which are included in the Bill – and paid-for scam adverts which are not covered. He also made the case to place an onus on big tech companies to clean up what they publish online. 

Martin was called to give evidence to the Joint Committee as part of the pre-legislative process, which will see the details of the Bill scrutinised and make recommendations for changes before it proceeds through the Houses of Parliament. This flagship Bill proposes to tackle harmful content online, and make the UK the safest place in the world to be online. But as it stands, there’s a gaping hole in the proposed legislation which leaves millions of people unprotected from one of the most common and devastating types of scams that appear online – scam adverts. Money and Mental Health is just one of the many charities, regulators, and consumer groups urging the government to use this opportunity to tackle online scams once and for all, by including scam adverts and placing greater responsibility on tech companies.

Problems with the Bill

Last month, we submitted written evidence to the Joint committee highlighting the Bill’s flawed and inconsistent approach to tackling online scams. The most pressing failure of the Bill is the arbitrary distinction it makes between user-generated scams, referring to unsponsored social media posts, and paid-for scam adverts. While the move to address online scams posted by users is welcome – as Martin made clear – creating a distinction between the two provides an easy loophole for scammers and an incentive for them to run more scam ads. Any attempt to crack down on scams is rendered useless if scammers can get around it by paying small amounts of money to turn their scams into adverts – which would remain untouched by the Bill if it passes in its current form.

Why it needs fixing now

The prevalence and severity of online scams mean they must be considered a priority harm by government and tech companies. Scam adverts are simply too common to be ignored by the Bill – with half of adults reporting seeing a scam ad on social media at least once a month – and the cost for victims too high.

Drawing on our research, which found that three in ten (28%) victims of online scams have felt depressed as a result of being scammed, Martin spoke passionately to the committee about those whose lives had been “destroyed” by scammers and the impact on mental health. Indeed, the consequences of being scammed go far beyond losing money. The psychological toll is huge, leading to negative feelings like stress, loss of confidence and worsened symptoms of mental health problems. A member of our Research Community told us: 

“I don’t have any spare money and the loss hit me financially and mentally. I get angry at myself for being taken in, it makes me feel vulnerable and weak.” Research Community member

Instead of including it in the Bill, the government says scam adverts will be considered as part of a future consultation on advertising regulation by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. But regulation through this means wouldn’t take effect for several years, and it is clear that action is needed now to mitigate the financial and psychological harm inflicted by scam adverts.

Duty of big tech

The question of where responsibility lies looms large over discussions about tackling online scams. To date, the UK’s approach to fraudulent advertising has been based on a model of self-regulation, while social media companies and search engines responsible for publishing the adverts have largely been left off the hook. During the evidence session, Martin criticised social media companies for “making billions of pounds from advertising” while being complacent about screening adverts for content which has the potential to cause significant financial and psychological damage. If the government is serious about ending the epidemic of scams, it must place greater responsibility on these platforms to identify and remove content before it has the chance to cause harm.