One in ten have fallen victim to online scam ads

Almost one in 10 people have fallen victim to online scam ads via social media sites or search engines as platforms fail to tackle a flood of bogus ads posted by fraudsters, a report has claimed.

People are being scammed online.
People are being scammed online.

The study, from consumer watchdog, Which?, comes as a new service has been launched by Scotland’s national consumer advice service Advice Direct Scotland, to protect people from scammers. ScamWatch is a free tool that allows consumers to report suspected scams and suspicious activity, including online, telephone and doorstep scams. The service has been launched as part of National Consumer Week 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic has seen a sharp rise in activity by scammers in Scotland. Fraud in Scotland was 72 per cent higher in September than last year, according to the most recent official data, although methodology changes mean this cannot all be attributed to coronavirus.

In September, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon highlighted that scammers were trying to trick Scots into paying for Covid contact tracing, while local councils have reported a number of doorstep scams relating to outdoor work in recent months. Businesses in Scotland have also reported several cyber scams, including fraudsters pretending to be from HMRC to access people’s bank details.

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Andrew Bartlett, chief executive of Advice Direct Scotland, said: “Scams impact people in Scotland every day, sometimes costing them thousands of pounds. Reporting a scam to us via the new ScamWatch tool will help us to gather intelligence to protect people across the country.

“By sharing the information with enforcement agencies, together we can shut out the scammers."

Which? is calling for the government to give tech giants greater legal responsibility for preventing scam content from appearing on their sites, after hundreds of people shared their stories of falling victim to convincing purchase scams. A purchase scam is when a consumer is misled into paying in advance for goods that are never received or are not at all as described. They are increasingly common on popular websites and platforms with criminals creating fake websites and documents that seem genuine to trick their victims.

The watchdog said that social media sites and search engines should be more proactive in preventing scam ads from appearing on their platforms in the first place, particularly as people are more reliant on shopping and socialising online than ever this winter. It said that some platforms have launched initiatives to deal with scam adverts but many of them rely on users having to report these themselves.

Over the last 12 months, Action Fraud says that it has received 83,822 online shopping fraud reports, with reported losses reaching around £62.3 million over that period.

Adam French, consumer rights expert at Which?, said: “Our research suggests that online purchase scams are taking place on an industrial scale, with scam victims suffering significant financial and emotional harm when they are targeted by fraudsters.

“Despite being known for innovation, social media sites and search engines are lagging behind scammers, seemingly taking little responsibility for stopping misinformation and harmful content from reaching their users.”

He added: “The government must step in and protect consumers by giving online platforms more legal responsibility to prevent scam content from appearing in the first place.”