Internet giant Google, along with other search engines and social media providers, are facing growing pressure to stop accepting advertising for fake investments and other financial services. Complaints against Google are being led by Andrew Bailey, the FCA’s outgoing chief executive, who is shortly due to become the next governor of the Bank of England.
Bailey has admitted that the regulator does not have the powers to block Google but said there had been ‘constructive’ discussions between the two parties on how investors can be better protected. It is understood the FCA wants Google to step up its due diligence and make more checks before it accepts advertising, such as via the regulator’s register and against its list of known unauthorized scammers.

Bailey commented:

“Bearing in mind the reach that Google and others have, I would like to see a scenario where we can agree an evidential test for cases where websites are clearly outright frauds and scams – and we see an increasing amount of this I should say – and if we take the evidence to them they are prepared to take the sites down. I can’t see them wanting to be known for being the home for this sort of activity.”

Bailey has said he would like to see Google remove scam advertising within 48 hours of being alerted.

Consumer groups such as Which? and the national press are also demanding action and have suggested that monies raised from the advertising should be reimbursed to scam victims or given to debt charities.

Spot the fakes
Typically, the ads appear when someone searches for ‘high investment returns’ or similar phrases and there have also been a number of cases where celebrities have been used to promote schemes. One featured celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay – it was claimed he had made millions from a platform called Profit Bitcoin. The advertising for this featured on the Microsoft home page and it was removed following a complaint. Other scam advertising also exists with ‘ghost broking’ where cheap insurance is offered that is fraudulent and worthless.

No single solution
However, when it comes to removing all fake advertising, there is no silver bullet. Various checks need to be made before any advertising can be removed, which can throw up legal issues. Advertisers can be based abroad, which can result in further complexity – and Google itself is a US-owned company. A legal requirement could potentially be enabled via forthcoming ‘online harms’ legislation. A bill is being drafted with the focus on protecting vulnerable children and adults from digital threats and amendments could widen the remit.

Further, it is hoped that concerns about reputational damage will bring change. Notably, a case brought by Martin Lewis, founder of Money Saving Expert, involved his image being used without permission to promote a number of crypto currency schemes on Facebook. This was settled out of court last year and Facebook agreed to donate £3 million to set up the Citizens Advice Scams Action facility, which provides one to one support for those impacted by fraud. Facebook also agreed to create a scam advertising reporting tool.

Google received negative publicity when debt consolidation services masqueraded as charities. Those trying to find charities StepChange and National Debtline could instead find firms offering paid-for services such as IVAs. Although these have not been banned entirely, last year StepChange announced that following a campaign, Google had agreed to restrict debt services advertising only to firms meeting new accreditation standards.

So, although there are a number of barriers, it would appear some progress is being made. Even so, campaigner Mark Taber who has reported around 100 scam advertisements to Google in 2020 alone, has described the situation as being like “the whack-a-mole game”. It has been found that when an ad is removed from Facebook, for example, it can then start appearing on Instagram. The multi-pronged approach to eliminating – or at least reducing – this problem must continue to gather pace. The providers are being asked to take a more vigilant and responsible approach and for this to prove effective, they must feel both compelled to do so and believe the consequences of inaction will be damaging to their business models as well as the public.