Social media users are seriously underestimating their chances of falling victim to online fraud and suffering devastating emotional and financial consequences because tech giants are not doing enough to warn and protect them, Which? is warning.
The consumer champion’s latest research using an online community of Facebook users showed that a majority were lulled into a false sense of security by the platform’s social nature. They mistakenly assumed they could spot fraud and that the company’s systems would protect them effectively.
However Which? found a third of participants did not know that fake products might be advertised on the site – putting them at risk of falling victim to purchase scams. A quarter did not spot an investment scam advert with a fake endorsement from a celebrity.
If this was to be replicated across Facebook’s user base of 44 million Britons, huge numbers of users could potentially be at risk from fraudsters who lure in victims with fake accounts, posts and paid-for ads on the site.
The financial consequences for those tricked by these fraudsters as well as those who post scam adverts on websites and search engines like Google can be devastating. Which? has heard from many victims of these types of scams – including a man who lost almost £100,000 after clicking on an online investment advert featuring fake endorsements from MoneySavingExpert’s Martin Lewis and Deborah Meaden from BBC show Dragons’ Den.
The emotional consequences are equally serious. Scam victims told Which? that it had shaken their confidence in themselves and their ability to trust other people. A woman who lost £30,000 to an investment scam which featured prominently on Google said she still feels shame and despair 15 months on from her ordeal, adding: “It breaks you as a person.”
Which? is calling on the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to act now and include online scams in the upcoming Online Harms Bill so that consumers are protected from this huge and growing problem.
Which? carried out in-depth research with an online community of Facebook users over 10 days, and also conducted a nationally representative online survey including 1,700 Facebook users, as part of its new policy report ‘Connecting the world to fraudsters? Protecting social media users from scams’.
The research found that older social media users are often more concerned about scams, and perceived as being at greater risk by their fellow users. But the findings suggested that younger people may actually be more susceptible to scams as they are more persuadable and more likely to take risks, such as taking part in online shopping and quizzes used by some fraudsters.
Knowledge among users of what Facebook does to protect people from becoming a victim of a scam was low, although users assumed Facebook did have systems and processes in place. However, when details of Facebook’s actual systems and processes were explained, users were sceptical about their effectiveness and questioned whether they are sufficient.
Just three in 10 (30%) respondents to Which?’s online survey of Facebook users said they were aware of the scam ad reporting tool introduced by the site in 2019. Only a third of these, 10 per cent overall, said they had used the tool themselves.
Which?’s research was conducted with a focus on Facebook due to its size and influence in the social media landscape. However, the consumer champion believes that the findings and implications of this research can be reasonably extended to apply to other similar social networking sites and online platforms.
The amount of money lost to fraud every year is huge. In the year to June 2020, Action Fraud received 822,276 fraud reports, and the value of losses from reported incidents was £2.3 billion. Action Fraud estimates that 85 per cent of all fraud in the year to June 2020 was carried out digitally.
Which? is calling for online platforms, including social media sites, to be given greater responsibility to prevent scam content appearing on their platforms. The government has a perfect opportunity to deliver this in the upcoming online harms bill, and if not ministers must set out their proposals for further legislative action to effectively protect consumers from online scams.
Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?, said:
“The financial and emotional toll of scams can be devastating and it is clear that social media firms such as Facebook are failing to step up and properly protect users from fraudsters on their sites.
“The time for serious action on online scams is now. If the government doesn’t grasp the opportunity to deliver this in the upcoming online harms bill, it must urgently come forward with new proposals to stem the growing tide of sophisticated scams by criminals online.”
Which? spoke to one person, retired and in his seventies, who lost almost £100,000 to a Bitcoin scam, which started in February 2019, by a company called Fibonetix. He had seen an online advert which had fake endorsements from celebrities including MoneySavingExpert’s Martin Lewis and businesswoman Deborah Meaden.
The case study, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Which?: “Being scammed in this way was utterly devastating. I think about it virtually every day and it’s really affected my confidence, my ability to make decisions and has ultimately changed the person that I am. Fortunately I have been able to get through it with the support of my family.”
One person, a sound engineer in her forties, was searching for investment advice on Google and ended up filling in contact details with a firm that seemed legitimate. Receiving a phone call a few days later she then ended up falling victim to an incredibly sophisticated scam, which took place over several weeks, and lost £30,000. Her case is currently being investigated by the Financial Ombudsman Service.
She says the experience has impacted her mental and physical health and that “it’s been really traumatic. At the time it felt like no one cared or wanted to discuss my case with me. It breaks you as a human being and leaves you scared of the outside world.”
Despite it happening 15 months ago she says: “it’s still hard to trust yourself and others. Often people think these things only happen to older people and it takes a long time to not feel like an idiot. There’s a lot of shame and despair which hasn’t gone away and I’m still awaiting closure to this day.”
Notes to editors:
The Which? policy report ‘Connecting the world to fraudsters? Protecting social media users from scams’ will be available from 00:01 on Wednesday 14 October at the following link: https://www.which.co.uk/
An advance copy of the policy report is available on request.
Which? undertook a two-stage, mixed-method research project:
Which? conducted qualitative research using a 10-day online community of 50 Facebook users to explore what they thought about scams on social media and their understanding and expectations of what Facebook does to protect them from scams.
Which? conducted a short, 15-question online survey with a larger sample (c. 1,700) of Facebook users. This was a nationally representative survey of (c. 2,000) reweighted to be representative of Facebook users.
The information in this press release is for editorial use by journalists and media outlets only. Any business seeking to reproduce information in this release should contact the Which? Endorsement Scheme team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.
Additional research from the policy report
When Facebook users were asked in Which?’s online survey about whether they are concerned about exposure to scams on the site, almost two-thirds (65%) said that they had a great deal or a fair amount of concern.
Of those concerned, almost a quarter (23%) said their main concern was that scams can be hard to spot, but a larger proportion (28%) were concerned because of a lack of confidence in Facebook’s systems and processes to protect people from scams.
Which?’s survey also explored barriers to using the scam ad reporting tool. While awareness of the tool’s existence and how to find the tool appears to be a challenge, so does individual users’ motivation to do so. Rather than report, Which?’s survey suggests users’ main responses when presented with a scam advert was to simply scroll on – 29% said they would scroll on because they identified it as suspicious. Just 31 people (out of the c. 1,700 surveyed) said they would report it.
Participants in Which?’s online community typically believed they had a good awareness of scams. Most participants (41 out of 48) claimed they had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of awareness that they could be exposed to scams on Facebook. All of the participants, regardless of their initial claimed awareness, indicated they were not aware of at least one of a number of real-life scams that were shown to them. People’s confidence was similarly overstated and did not translate into actual ability to identify scams. Facebook users of all self assessed confidence levels mis-identified scams in similar numbers.
Rights of reply
In response, Facebook pointed Which? to some of the measures it has taken to deal with scam adverts, including:
Building a global safety and security team of over 35,000 people, and investing in AI and machine learning to help keep users safe and secure.
A team of highly trained experts, as part of its safety and security team, solely focused on identifying fake and fraudulent profiles and building tools to counter this kind of activity.
In June, it launched a UK Scam Ad Alert system in partnership with the ASA to help tackle scam ads. More information here.
Focusing on prevention and giving direct support to people impacted by fraudulent behaviour including having donated £3 million to Citizens Advice to help them set up a UK anti-online scams initiative.
A Google spokesperson said:
“Protecting users from ad scams and fraud is a key priority. To better prevent predatory financial ads in the UK, we are now requiring certain advertisers promoting financial products or services to complete our Business Operations Verification Programme. This programme will allow us to gain more information about the advertisers’ identity, business model and relationships with third parties to ensure 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.”
Additionally, according to Google, since the case study mentioned in the press release from 15 months ago, it has updated its policy to include new requirements for financial services advertisers in the UK. Earlier this year it introduced a requirement for certain advertisers who are engaged in the promotion of financial services in the UK to complete the Business Operations Verification Programme, when requested by Google.
Which? was unable to find contact details for Fibonetix.