The Online Safety Bill was a step in the right direction, but the government needs to do more to close loopholes that are putting consumers at risk during the cost of living crisis.
Once upon a time the fastest way to earn a million pounds was to keep going Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and answer 15 general culture questions. Now, according to the new who? research, organized crime gangs can make roughly that amount in 24 hours by exploiting glaring regulatory loopholes and bombarding websites with fraudulent advertisements.
We all see online advertisements every day when we browse websites. Some of them are useful because they can direct us to buy the products we want. But there’s a darker side to the online ads we see – and some can cause financial and psychological harm to consumers. Currently, only one percent of the digital advertising supply chain is safe from potential fraudulent activity.
Fraudulent advertisements have been discovered on sites that millions of consumers use daily, including news websites. Scam artists will stop at nothing to try and fool whoever they can – with the cost of living crisis the latest useful hook to lure victims. An advert explaining a ‘simple trick to reduce fuel consumption by 55%’ shows a hand trying to place a bottle of Coca Cola into a car’s fuel tank – a clear example of clickbait trying to lure the browser to another site, but also a prospect attractive enough to convince some readers.
Investment scams are also commonplace. Many of us will have seen the faces of famous celebrities, like Sir Richard Branson, Martin Lewis or Deborah Meaden, supposedly “endorsing” investments or get-rich-quick schemes to make them appear more legitimate. If the consumers watching them are struggling to make ends meet, the ads – featuring famous people they may look up to or respect – could trick them into believing they are just a few clicks away from a fortune, when ‘they actually miss out on sensitive information that scammers can use to trick them out of their money.
Outside of America, the UK has the highest number of ad scam victims, primarily because English-speaking countries are prime targets for the criminals involved. Threats to consumers include malicious clickbait, fake software updates, and forced redirects to other web pages, all of which can lead to compromised consumer data and devices, as well as direct financial loss.
Who? commissioned cybersecurity experts Beruku Identity to take a deeper look into the murky advertising fraud ecosystem. Our report shows how fraudulent advertising is perpetrated by sophisticated organized crime groups who will repeatedly create new identities and fake media agencies. This means that they can constantly reappear in new guises when their scam advertisements are eventually removed from websites. So, rather than being an effective solution to the problem of ad scams, the current reactive “takedown” approach to fighting crime is already factored into the business model of these criminals.
This type of fraud also thrives primarily due to the complexity of the programmatic advertising buying process, which often involves a number of different actors. Tech giants say self-regulation works – but which one? the research repeatedly revealed loopholes, from investment ads on Google to other types of fraud committed by social media users and through fake reviews posted by bogus Amazon sellers.
The harsh reality is that organized crime groups don’t take days off.
The Government, through its Online Safety Bill, has pledged to crack down on false and fraudulent advertising found on major social media sites and search engines, and will give Ofcom the power to regulate them. This is a very important step in the right direction. However, there are still vast swathes of the rest of the Internet that will continue to be exploited ruthlessly by sophisticated scammers – and they need to be addressed.
Although the Advertising Standards Authority does a good job of spotting bad ads, it currently has no power to require online platforms and ad technology providers to have systems in place to prevent scammers from posting an ad. . We need a regulator that does due diligence across the entire online advertising ecosystem and requires platforms and intermediaries to collect and share data on scams.
The harsh reality is that organized crime groups don’t take days off. The current process of tackling false and fraudulent advertising online is more like a game of molestation: without rigorous preventative action and a common reporting approach for supply chain actors, they will continue to reappear. .
The government has done a commendable job on its Online Safety Bill to make the digital world a safer place. Who? believes the government must continue to move forward and close loopholes that put consumers at risk of emotional and financial loss – at a time when many of them can least afford it.
Rocio Concha is Director of Policy and Advocacy at Which?
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