Which? is calling for Google to take stronger measures to tackle scam ads, after finding fake ads for debt charities, car insurers and investment firms are regularly appearing on the tech giant’s search results.
The consumer champion investigated Google’s pay-per-click service, which allows businesses to pay for prominent spots on search results, and found scammers have hijacked searches for financial services to advertise fake and fraudulent websites.
Which? found the search results for common saving terms such as ‘top Isa’, ‘best bonds’ and ‘best fixed rate bonds’, were dominated by dubious ads for ‘investment finder’ services that encouraged prospective investors to fill in their details.
Under the guise of a novice investor, a Which? investigator completed a form on a suspicious ad for fixedrates4u.com. They were contacted by someone claiming to be from SGZ Bank Ireland and urged to visit their website sgz-bank.com.
While the site appeared legitimate and included links to the Financial Conduct Authority’s Financial Services Register for SGZ-Bank Ireland PLC, alarm bells rang when the investigator discovered the webpage was only registered a month ago – the international bank has been around for decades.
Which? contacted their parent company German DZ Bank, who confirmed the SGZ Bank Ireland part of its operations had been closed for years, and the website was ‘clearly a scam’. Shortly after, the rogue website was taken down and a warning appeared on the FCA’s register.
One victim lost £160,000 after clicking on an ad for an ‘Aviva’ investment scheme. Despite doing their due diligence to ensure the website was legitimate, they had been speaking with a fraudster, who assumed the name of a real Aviva employee, and only discovered they had fallen victim to a scam after spotting a warning on the FCA’s website.
This victim has since been reimbursed under the terms of the authorised push payment scams voluntary code, after their bank decided they had done their due diligence and were not to blame.
Worryingly, fraudsters have also targeted vulnerable consumers seeking debt help, with so-called “lead generator” ads imitating leading debt charities. They encourage them to submit personal details that are then sold to Insolvency Practitioners (IPs). Victims are then contacted and pushed to take often-unsuitable Individual Voluntary Agreements (IVAs) – a legally binding debt repayment plan.
While IVAs can be an appropriate solution to debt issues they should not be entered into lightly, as IPs can charge large fees and IVAs may impose restrictions on or bar people from certain jobs.
Which? found suspicious “lead generator” ads when searching for ‘StepChange’ that appeared to mimic genuine ads from the debt charity and its official URL. Google has since removed ads for stepchanging.org.uk.
Distressed motorists at the roadside after a traffic accident have also been targeted by “click-to-dial” ads that lead those looking for their insurer’s phone number to instead contact dodgy claims management companies.
Consumers are led to believe these firms are working on behalf of their insurer to submit a claim, however their details are passed onto numerous third-party companies and consumers can find themselves owing thousands of pounds for services which would have been covered and paid for by their genuine insurer.
Which? found search results for ‘Admiral claims number’, ‘NFU phone number’ and ‘Aviva claims department’ were topped by adverts for third party websites referring to themselves with terms such as the ‘official claims line’ and ‘claims department’.
Another victim, Alastair, unwittingly fell into the hands of crooks after clicking on the first “click-to-dial” ad when searching for the phone number of his insurer’s claims department. After being passed through three or four people on the call, he became suspicious and refused to cooperate.
Since then, Alastair has received hundreds of calls from firms urging him to make bogus personal injury claims.
Google has announced plans to verify all advertisers on its platform to help tackle fraudulent activity. Working with the FCA, it introduced a verification programme for advertisers promoting financial services and products in July – however the wider programme to verify all advertisers is currently only applied to advertisers registered in Canada, India, Russia, Ukraine and the United States.
Under new rules, advertisers promoting financial services or products now have to submit documentation to verify their legal identities and business operations. However, these advertisers have 21 days to submit documentation and their ads will remain live during this time. Which? is concerned this grace period will be exploited by scammers.
Google told Which? this grace period will be removed for some users from September, but did not explain how these users will be identified. Which? believes all advertisers should be verified before their ads are published and is calling for Google to prioritise removing this grace period for advertisers promoting financial services or products.
The wider verification programme for all advertisers, which will give them a 30-day grace period, will be rolled out in phases, but in the interim Which? is calling for Google to introduce clear and transparent labels for ads listed by unverified advertisers, so consumers can consider the risk and trustworthiness of an ad before clicking on it.
Which? is also calling for fraudulent content that leads to scams to be included in the scope of the government’s Online Harms legislation to give online platforms more responsibility for harmful content and activity on their sites. This would require tech companies like Google to have in place better controls to prevent fake adverts from appearing and take them down swiftly when identified or reported.
Jenny Ross, Which? Money Editor, said:
“People should be able to trust that the adverts they see on Google are legitimate, however our investigation has revealed the various ways fraudsters have hijacked the search engine’s systems to target and exploit victims.
“Despite introducing new measures to vet those advertising financial products or services, the grace period is a glaring loophole and we are calling for Google to remove this delay for advertisers in high-risk industries. It should also introduce clear and transparent labels for ads listed by unverified advertisers.
“The government should also widen the scope of its upcoming Online Harms legislation to include fraudulent content, which would require tech firms to take tougher action to tackle scam adverts.”
Notes to eds
Right of reply
A Google spokesperson said: ‘Protecting users from ad scams and fraud is a key priority. To more effectively prevent predatory financial ads in the UK, we now require certain advertisers promoting financial products or services to complete our business operations verification programme. This will allow us to gain more information about the advertisers’ identity, business model and relationships with third parties so users can trust the ads they’re seeing. This policy update follows months of engagement with and input from the FCA to ensure we’re effectively addressing the bad actors responsible for predatory financial ads.’
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