Conor D’Arcy, Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health

Scam ads are a menace but the Online Safety Bill is a golden opportunity to tackle them

29 July 2021

In May, the government published its plans to crack down on a range of dangers faced by internet users. The draft Online Safety Bill would place a duty on social media companies and search engines to protect people from illegal content like racist abuse or terrorist material.

But as our new policy paper shows, this flagship Bill has a gaping hole in it when it comes to scams – one of the biggest risks online today (you can read our new paper here). By ignoring fraudulent adverts, some of the most common and harmful scams will be untouched, leaving millions of us – including those with mental health problems – at risk.

‘User-generated’ scams are only part of the problem

The argument made by the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport is that this Bill is focusing only on ‘user-generated’ content. This includes a typical post on social media or result from a search engine. Scams of this sort – including romance scams or fraudulent investment opportunities posted by users – will be covered by the Bill. This will mean that online firms like social media companies and search engines will be more responsible for protecting their users from these scams, and could face huge fines if they fail to do their duty.

It’s welcome that the government has included user-generated scams. Many members of our Research Community – a group of 5,000 people (as of April 2021) with lived experience of mental health problems – told us how what they thought was a trustworthy post from another user or search results led to them losing money or personal information.

But scam adverts are incredibly common too. National polling we conducted earlier this year found that half of us had seen scam adverts on at least a monthly basis. The inclusion of some sorts of scams but not others in this new legislation will create confusion and could perversely incentivise scammers to pay to make their content an advert.

A consultation on advertising is not enough

The government’s logic for excluding scam adverts from the Bill is that there is already regulation on advertising and it will be consulting on how to improve it. But a commitment to consult on potential changes at some point — the timeline appears to have slipped from “the first half of this year” to “later this year” — will be of little comfort to those who have lost out to scams or are held back by fears of doing so.

“[After being scammed I was] very shaken and felt as if I had been personally attacked. For a long time I was unable to use the internet and to this day I do not have internet banking” Expert by experience

“Financially I really struggled for a few months, had to borrow money and use food banks, ultimately had to sell my car to pay it off.” Expert by experience

The Online Safety Bill is a perfect opportunity to stop scam ads

The big opportunity with the Bill is to stop scams appearing. While social media companies and search engines say they do vet the ads that appear on their sites, this is clearly proving ineffective. By placing a duty on internet firms to stop scam ads making it onto their platforms in the first place, and to respond rapidly when they do, this should reduce the numbers of people losing money or personal information through these routes.

While scam adverts didn’t make it into the draft version of the Bill published in May, there’s still time for the government to change course. A pre-legislative scrutiny committee of MPs and Peers will go through the detail of it and make recommendations for changes, which the government will consider before it proceeds through the Houses of Parliament. This is a landmark moment in internet regulation, but failing to use it to protect people from scam adverts would be a huge missed opportunity.