Which? calls for urgent government action over devastating emotional toll of online scams

Which? is calling for the government to urgently outline how it plans to tackle the harm caused by online scams, as new research reveals hundreds of fraud reports each week are flagged because victims are showing signs of severe emotional distress.

The consumer champion reviewed 16 research papers and datasets from across the world, and obtained figures from UK police – finding that serious emotional harm from fraud can occur irrespective of whether the victim lost money or was reimbursed.

Action Fraud data shared with Which? identified 300-350 fraud reports a week that show victims with signs of severe emotional distress – up to 18,000 reports a year.

Each of these is reviewed by trained staff to identify a course of action, which can include dispatching emergency services to the victim’s home.

Worryingly, Action Fraud received 241 phone calls between January and November 2020 where there was deemed to be a “threat to life” and call operatives must attempt to keep callers talking until an ambulance crew or police can arrive.

Phone calls and web forms triggering concerns for wellbeing represent up to six per cent of the 300,000 reports Action Fraud receives each year.

Although the Action Fraud reports are not solely from victims of online scams, this is an area where Which? has repeatedly found consumers falling victim, including increasing evidence that online platforms are not doing enough to prevent these crimes.

The financial and emotional consequences for those tricked by these fraudsters, including those who post scam adverts on websites and search engines, can be devastating.

One victim in his eighties lost more than £50,000 in retirement savings after clicking on a link at the top of his Google results page which took him to a fake version of the investment management firm Invesco.

Despite doing his due diligence to check if the company was legitimate, he had been speaking with a fraudster, who assumed the name of a real compliance manager for Invesco, and only discovered he had fallen victim to a scam after he did not receive confirmation of the investment and was unable to contact the company.

The retiree told Which? that the investment scam left him and his family emotionally distressed. He said: “We were all very upset as the amount lost was so big, I could not sleep for so many nights.”

This victim has since been reimbursed under the terms of the authorised push payment scams voluntary code, after his bank decided he had done his due diligence and was not to blame.

A European Commission survey found that eight in 10 (79%) scam and fraud victims experienced a negative emotional impact, while a quarter (24%) experienced a negative financial impact.

More than half (57%) of those surveyed experienced only emotional or physical harm, showing that even where no money is lost – or where it is ultimately returned – the very act of betrayal represented by a scam often causes significant suffering.

Separate recent Which? research found that almost one in 10 people (9%) have fallen victim to online scam ads via social media sites, and the same percentage (9%) via search engines, as platforms fail to tackle a flood of bogus ads posted by fraudsters – suggesting that millions of people are at risk of facing these devastating emotional consequences.

Which? is calling for action to be taken to address the fake and fraudulent content that leads to scams online. The consumer champion believes the UK government must give online platforms legal responsibility for preventing content appearing on their sites that leads to scams.

Home Secretary Priti Patel last week told Parliament’s influential Home Affairs Committee it was unacceptable that scams could be advertised on social media and that the government is looking at strengthening the Online Safety Bill on this issue.

Rocio Concha, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?, said:

“Online scams are happening on an industrial scale and our research shows the impact can be devastating, with hundreds of fraud victims a week showing worrying signs of severe emotional distress.

“The government should use the proposed Online Safety Bill to stem the growing tide of sophisticated scams by criminals online and give platforms legal responsibility for tackling fake and fraudulent content posted by scammers on their sites.”

Notes to editor

Nearly one in 10 have fallen victim to scam adverts on social media or search engines as platforms fail to adequately protect users, Which? finds

Which? calls for action over emotional and financial toll of online scams as tech giants fail to adequately protect users

Stronger measures needed to tackle scam ads on Google, Which? warns

Case study

Which? spoke to Mr Patel, a retiree and in his late eighties, who lost £50,000 to an investment scam perpetrated by a clone company claiming to be Invesco. He had searched on Google and found what he thought was a genuine Invesco product.

He invested the money by bank transfer from First Direct and was told that the product would not be able to produce an income for six months. The case study suspected it was a scam after he did not receive confirmation of the investment and couldn’t contact the company.

Mr Patel and his family suffered emotional consequences as a result of the ordeal. He said: “We were all very upset as the amount lost was so big, I could not sleep for so many nights. We never thought we would get the money back.”

Which? advised him that as a victim of a sophisticated bank transfer fraud he should be refunded under the voluntary APP code. It also told him that vulnerable customers are given extra protection and should be refunded under the code.

This victim was reimbursed two weeks later 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.

The case study told Which?: “Thank you very much for giving us the help, it’s fantastic. Without your help it wouldn’t have happened.”

Right of reply

Google

A Google spokesperson said:

“Protecting consumers and credible businesses operating in the financial sector is a priority for us, which merits careful rules and enforcement. We take dishonest business practices and misleading ads very seriously and consider them to be a violation of our policies and recently updated our policies to enable verification of businesses promoting financial services in the UK. When ads do not comply with our policies; we take immediate action.”

Background from Google

According to Google, it suspended ads from serving from invescocapital.com in February last year.

Google also recently announced an update to its unreliable claims policy to restrict the rates of return a firm can advertise and ban the use of terms that make unrealistic claims. This update prohibits making unrealistic promises of large financial return with minimal risk, effort or investment.

Last year, the platform terminated over one million accounts for violating its policies.

About Which?

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.

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 endorsementscheme@which.co.uk.

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