ONLINE SCAMS MUST BE INCLUDED IN UK GOVERNMENT ONLINE SAFETY BILL
Online scams have a devastating financial and emotional impact on victims – and too often platforms like Facebook and Google are leaving their users worryingly exposed to criminals operating on their sites.
The current approach of self-regulation is not fit for purpose. The case for including scams in the Online Safety Bill is overwhelming, with industry, regulators and consumer groups all calling for urgent action to tackle online scams and for platforms to better protect their users from fraudsters.
The scope of the Online Safety Bill must be expanded to include fake and fraudulent content that leads to scams. This would better protect people against the devastating financial and emotional harm caused by these crimes.
Essential online services have become in people’s daily lives as a result of changes in the past year and there are more people spending more time online. The benefits of this are significant but fundamental to this must be ensuring their safety online.
However, existing laws and regulations designed to protect consumers in the online world have failed to keep pace with criminals in this modern arena. This is particularly the case in relation to scams, where fraudsters are increasingly taking advantage of online platforms to target victims.
Online platforms play a pivotal role in enabling criminals to reach and defraud internet users through the hosting, promotion and targeting of fake and fraudulent content on their sites, including adverts that they make significant profits from. Yet platforms have very little legal responsibility for protecting their users, despite often being the best placed to tackle harmful content.
Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows there were 3.7 million incidents of fraud between March 2019 and March 2020, making it the crime that adults are most likely to fall victim to in the UK, while Action Fraud figures show £1.7 billion was lost to scams in the last year.
There was a 32% increase in investment scam cases in 2020, which are often promoted through adverts on search engines offering higher than average returns, and a 38% increase in cases of romance scams, driven by the rise in online dating during the pandemic.
These figures are likely a significant underestimate of the true value and do not take into account the fact that even when the victim is reimbursed, criminals still retain illegal proceeds, reinvesting them in further organised illegal activity, causing wider societal harm. Nor do they capture the equally devastating emotional impact that scams have on victims.
Even if people are able to get their money back after falling victim, they can still experience significant emotional harm. Vulnerable people, including those experiencing mental health problems, are also more at risk of falling victim to these crimes.
Across industry, regulators and consumer groups, there is now wide-ranging consensus on the urgent need for action to tackle scams and the critical role that online platforms must take in protecting users from the harm caused by fake and fraudulent content.
Therefore, fake and fraudulent content that leads to scams must be included in scope of the proposed Online Safety Bill. This would require online platforms to identify, remove and prevent fake and fraudulent content from being hosted on their sites, putting in place incentives for platforms to work together with the telecoms, banking and finance sectors to tackle economic crime.
There is a growing risk that current plans for future regulatory frameworks are not taking a comprehensive approach to the threats faced by consumers and do not reflect the extent or urgency of the problem.