Major win in MSE and Martin Lewis campaign to fight scam ads as new online safety laws pass
The Online Safety Act has today become law, after years of campaigning by Martin Lewis, MSE, and many other consumer groups and charities. This means that, for the first time, online platforms have a legal duty to prevent and take down scam advertising – which leads thousands of people to hand over life-changing amounts of cash to criminals. While there is still work to be done, this new legislation is a momentous step forward in the battle against online scam ads.
Martin Lewis and MSE’s campaign to stop scam ads started well before the Government took its first steps towards regulation. Early on, Martin filed a high court case against Facebook, following the proliferation of fake ads featuring his name and face on the platform – eventually settling with the tech giant for a world-first scam ad reporting button in the UK and a donation to help Citizens Advice support fraud victims.
This isn’t just about those ads featuring Martin. We have heard time and time again from people who have fallen victim to all manner of scams after seeing a fake online ad – leaving their finances, mental health and wellbeing in tatters.
Since that time, Martin and MSE have been campaigning tirelessly against this epidemic of fraudulent advertising – to not only protect consumers, but also to hold the platforms used by scammers to account.
The new Online Safety Act covers much more than just scam ads. But these particular rules – which were pushed for by Martin Lewis, MSE and a whole host of our coalition partners – should mean that the biggest social media companies and search engines will be forced to prevent scam ads from appearing on them, or face penalties. When some do slip through the net, they will have to act quickly to take them down.
While the Act doesn’t cover all online ads, these rules send a clear message to platforms: they are responsible for what they are paid to publish, they must do more to protect consumers online, and there will be consequences for failing to do so.
While this is a major milestone in the fight against fraudsters, there is still a lot of work to be done. The Government has appointed Ofcom – the telecoms regulator – to oversee platforms’ new duties. We will be keeping a close eye on this work, engaging with Ofcom on its guidance to platforms to ensure the new rules are tough and have teeth.
In the meantime, online tech companies already know what is expected of them – they now need to proactively boost their defences against scams ads and make sure that any that do appear are taken down quickly. We know that there are still too many criminals who are able to reach victims through these platforms – and consumers have already waited long enough to feel safe from fraud online.
The fight against fraud – our campaign so far
2018 to 2021
- After hundreds of scam ads featuring Martin’s name and face appeared on its platform, Martin took legal action against Facebook (now Meta) in 2018. As part of the settlement deal, Facebook agreed to launch a dedicated tool to report scam ads, and to donate £3 million to Citizens Advice to offer support for victims.
- After we had raised the issue with senior ministers, the Government began to propose new regulation aimed at making people feel safer online. At this time, Martin said it would be “unthinkable” not to include scam ads in this legislation, and Martin and MSE have been campaigning for this ever since.
- Privately, Martin and MSE also held talks with the biggest platforms, urging them to take action against the epidemic of scams on their sites.
- Publicly, we joined a coalition of organisations, including, Which?, the City of London Police, PIMFA and UK Finance, all calling for action to be taken against online paid-for scam ads.
- Following a disappointing first draft of the new Online Safety Bill, which did not include action against scam ads, Martin Lewis gave official evidence to MPs, renewing his calls to include tough measures to prevent this kind of fraudulent content.
- Martin also wrote an open letter to the Government, signed by 14 trusted household names who frequently have their names and likeness used in online scams. The signatories included Richard Branson, Robbie Williams, Dawn French and Peter Jones and Deborah Meaden from Dragons' Den.
- Before directly appealing to the Prime Minister outside No.10, Martin sent a digivan around Westminster emblazoned with fake adverts featuring him and the other letter signatories (see main image). The message was simple – these scam ads wouldn’t be allowed on a billboard. Why are they still allowed online?
- We welcomed the news that the Government was finally going to act to include scam ads in the bill in March, although some tweaks to the bill were still needed to ensure search engines had to act as stringently to protect consumers as big tech platforms. These changes were successfully made later in the year.
- Following over a year of activity in Parliament to pass the bill, the Online Safety Act finally became law on 26 October 2023.