Brian Semple, Head of External Affairs, Money and Mental Health

The Queen’s Speech: a missed opportunity to stop online scams

11 May 2021

For those of us campaigning to end the harm caused by online scams, the new plans for the Online Safety Bill announced this week proved to be a disappointment. 

Ahead of the speech, Money and Mental Health and other organisations have been calling on the government to include scams in the Online Safety Bill, its new flagship legislation to tackle online harms (which was due to be announced in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech). In particular, we want to see the government put in place formal regulation to make tech platforms identify and remove scam content online.

The Queen’s speech itself made no mention of scams, but today the government published more detail on the Online Safety Bill. This included the announcement that the Bill would include measures to tackle ‘user-generated’ scams content such as romance or investment scams in social media, but not scam adverts, one of the biggest sources of online scams.

The new protections against romance and investment scams are welcome, and could make a big difference in stopping devastating impact they can have. But by not including scam adverts in the remit of the Bill, the government has missed a big opportunity to put a complete end to the financial and psychological harm that these crimes cause.

The link between online scams and mental health

Cracking down on online scam ads would benefit everyone, but especially people with mental health problems, who are three times more likely to have been affected by an online scam than the wider population. Our research (which you can read by clicking here) shows that common symptoms of mental health problems — from reduced concentration to difficulties in processing complex information — can make it harder to identify and avoid online scams. 

Unsurprisingly, lockdown has exacerbated these problems, with more of us spending time online, feeling isolated, and struggling with our mental health. The types of scams most commonly seen by members of our Research Community — such as fake posts about mental health treatment, financial assistance, Covid-19 cures and vaccines — suggest that online criminals are particularly targeting people struggling with money or health worries.

Being a victim of an online scam can be financially crippling, and even smaller losses can be damaging for people with mental health problems, who are more likely to be living on lower incomes or in problem debt. 

They also cause considerable distress to people who are already struggling. In a survey of our Research Community, four in ten (42%) people who had fallen victim to online scams felt that they had experienced a major negative impact on their mental health. 

How the government can crack down on online scams

The UK’s lack of adequate protections against online financial crime has given scammers a free hand to act. That’s why we’ve been calling on the government to include scams in the scope of the Online Safety Bill, and to put in place formal regulation to deal with them. 

Specifically, we want the government to give the communications regulator Ofcom new powers to make online platforms like Facebook and Google crack down on scams — just as Ofcom has already been promised powers to crack down on offensive social media content. 

Recently, we joined with organisations including Which?, UK Finance (the industry body for financial services) and the City of London Police in urging the government to include scams in the Online Safety Bill when it is introduced into Parliament (click here to read more about our joint call for action).

A missed opportunity

Falling victim to a romance or investment scam on social media can have a devastating impact financially and emotionally, so it’s encouraging that the Online Safety Bill will introduce protections against these crimes. It is also a welcome sign that the government is listening to our concerns about online scams

But if ministers think this is job done on tackling online scams, they couldn’t be more wrong. Romance and investment scams make up only a relatively small part of the problem. By doing nothing to tackle the bigger threat posed by scam adverts and emails, the Bill still leaves a gaping hole in consumer protections against online financial crime.

But we are not disheartened. As the Bill is introduced into Parliament in the coming months, we will continue to push ministers to put in place proper consumer protections against all kinds of online scams, and especially the fraudulent adverts which cause the biggest damage. Failing to do so will mean continuing to leave people defenceless against scams during pandemic, especially those with mental health problems.