Government efforts to tackle online fraud doomed to fail unless it includes scam adverts in Online Safety Bill

29 July 2021

  • New analysis by the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute shows that by leaving scams out of the Bill, the government is leaving millions of internet users – particularly those with mental health problems – in danger of losing money or sensitive personal information to scammers. 
  • Money and Mental Health’s research shows that scam adverts are among the most commonly encountered types of scams. In national polling commissioned by the charity, half of UK adults (50%) reported they had seen a scam advert on social media at least once a month (1).
  • The Bill also gives scammers a ‘get out of jail free’ card, as by paying relatively small amounts to promote their content, they can ensure they will not be affected by this new regulation.
  • It will also cause confusion for people using online services, and for tech companies – who will be expected to put in place measures to remove some scams from their websites, but not others – ignoring some of the most commonly seen scams.
  • Money and Mental Health is calling on the government to use the Bill to place a duty on online firms to stop scam adverts appearing on their services in the first place, and to remove them rapidly when they do. 
  • This will be vital in protecting millions of internet users, and in delivering the government’s goal of making the UK the safest place in the world to be online.

Commenting on the research, Martin Lewis, Founder of MoneySavingExpert and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, said:

“The UK is facing an epidemic of scam adverts. This is partially due to a systemic failure to both properly fund policing and bring in appropriate regulation. Our advertising rules were set up to police soap manufacturers making false cleanliness claims, not to tackle sophisticated, psychologically adept, digital organised crime, based around the world. This has left many scammers untraced, un-investigated, and unpunished. Many get away with these crimes with impunity.

“It is therefore farcical that the government is leaving scam adverts out of the Online Safety Bill. While protecting democracy from fake news is important — as the Bill will do — the Westminster bubble seems to be ignoring the more prosaic but devastating impact scammers have on people’s lives.

“Unless they change their approach, Ministers’ efforts to tackle online fraud are doomed to failure, and millions of consumers will still be at risk of losing money and personal information, or at medical harm through fake ads. We need to cut off scammers’ ability to reach the public, and stop big-tech profiting from scams.

“The one bright spark is that user-generated scams will be included in the Bill. However the idea you can draw a distinction between content and adverts is 1980s thinking. It’d mean the law covers someone making a scam post, but not if they pay to promote the same content. It’s a nonsensical, unworkable distinction in the social media age.

“The government instead tells me they will eventually come up with a plan to tackle scam adverts through changing advertising regulation. Yet this is a plan which no one has seen, and which will have to go through a lengthy process of consultation, lobbying and drafting of legislation – probably in the face of fierce opposition from the powerful advertising industry. Meanwhile huge swathes of people will see their financial and mental health destroyed after falling victim.

“Instead we must put scam ads in the Online Safety Bill which will soon be scrutinised by MPs and Lords, and will already force online platforms to deal with user-generated scams. The government says it is serious about making a concrete commitment to deal with online fraud – yet it is leaving out scam adverts.  I wonder if scammers thought the Prime Minister’s face was trusted enough, and started using him in their adverts, the government would still be saying this wasn’t a priority.”