Katrina Gaffney, External Affairs Officer, Money and Mental Health

Time to crack down on scam ads: Our response to the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill

23 September 2021

The government is inching closer to enacting new legislation on online harms designed to protect people from illegal content online. But, there’s still one glaring omission from these new laws – the Online Safety Bill fails to tackle online scam adverts. Given the prevalence of online scams ads —  with half (50%) of adults reported seeing a scam ad on social media at least once a month —  and the devastating impact falling victim to a scam can have, it’s vital that scam ads are included in the Bill.

That’s why this week we submitted evidence to the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill – setting out the case for including scam adverts within the scope of the Bill. The committee is responsible for examining the Bill and making recommendations for changes which the government will review before the Bill goes through parliament. This is a crucial opportunity to make a difference to the legislation and protect people from scams once and for all.

The harm scams cause

Through our research we’ve seen the devastating impact scams can have financially and mentally. Polling found that four in ten (40%) online scam victims have felt stressed and three in ten (28%) have felt depressed as a result of being scammed. The impact of scams can be particularly harmful for those already struggling with their mental health and finances: 

“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. 

The harm caused by scams can ultimately affect an individual’s relationship with the internet —  and in some instances may leave people unable to use vital online services: 

“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” Research Community member

And we’re already seeing the specific harm that unregulated scam ads are causing people: 

“I purchased a paper to enter into Canada which should have been £5 but the search engine took me to another address. I ended up paying £184 each for me and my husband and I could not do a thing about it” Research Community member

An inconsistent approach

Given the widespread harm caused by online scams, we were initially encouraged to see the government include user-generated scams, such as romance scams, in the scope of the Bill. But, the bill now draws an unclear, unhelpful distinction between user-generated scams and scam adverts, which will incentivise online platforms to focus on some kinds of fraudulent content but not others. 

Moreover, by solely focusing on user-generated content, the government has left room for scammers to potentially exploit loopholes in the legislation. We risk a situation where scammers can ‘pay for’ their content to be classed as an ad, by-passing legislation and continuing to cause financial and psychological harm.  

Why we need action now

The government has suggested that rather than using the Bill to tackle scam ads it will pursue other methods, including a Home Office fraud action plan and a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport consultation on advertising regulation. However, any meaningful changes to regulation on advertising would take several years to enact, leaving millions of people vulnerable to scam ads in the interim. Including scam ads in the Bill, which would place a duty on internet firms to stop scam ads making it onto their platforms in the first place and to respond quickly when they do. By doing so, the government can take concrete action on scams much sooner. We believe that including scams ads in the Online Safety Bill is a chance that the government can’t miss and hope that this is reflected in the recommendations the Joint Committee on the Bill makes in the coming months.

Read our full submission here.