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Martin Lewis: 'Government's failure to include scams in Online Safety Bill risks finances and mental health of millions - this must change'

A new Online Safety Bill has been announced by the Government in the Queen’s speech today for the opening of Parliament. It promises to ‘lead the way in ensuring internet safety for all’ – but according to MoneySavingExpert founder Martin Lewis, it has stumbled at the first hurdle as it does not plan to protect people from scam and fraudulent ads.

Martin has vowed to keep campaigning to try and get the Government to change its mind when the bill is reviewed by Parliament. Martin, alongside MoneySavingExpert and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute charity – both of which he founded and now chairs - has been at the forefront of campaigning to stop scams for years. 

This week alone Martin was named by the National Cyber Crime Security Centre, alongside entrepreneur Richard Branson, as the celebrities mostly commonly used in scam adverts. Martin called it “the worst compliment I’ve ever had”. Back in April 2018, Martin took campaigning legal action against Facebook after 1,000 scam adverts abusing his name or image had appeared on the social networking site.

As part of its settlement, Facebook agreed in January 2019 to launch a dedicated tool to report scam ads, which it has done, as well as to donate £3 million to Citizens Advice to help tackle them. 

According to Action Fraud figures, £1.7 billion was lost to scams in the past year, while estimates for the year to June 2020 reveal that 85% of all fraud was cyber-enabled. See our 30+ Ways to Stop Scams guide for more help on how to avoid scams and what to do if you think you've been caught out.

'The Government has failed to protect millions'

Martin Lewis, on behalf of and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute - both of which he founded - said: “The Queen read that ‘My government will lead the way in providing internet safety for all, especially children’. Yet the Government has stumbled at the first fence, by not including scams in the Online Safety Bill.

"We live in a world where the policing of scams is dangerously underfunded, leaving criminals to get away with fraud with impunity. This was a chance to at least deny them the ‘oxygen of publicity’ by making big tech responsible for the scammers adverts it is paid to publish.

“By not doing so the Government has failed to protect millions, in the midst of a pandemic, from one of the most damaging online harms to their financial and mental health. My slim hope is, as prior reports hinted, the door is ajar for scams to be added to the bill at the committee stage. And we will continue to expose this gap, and push ministers to put in place proper consumer protections against scams.”

'Self-regulation is not fit for purpose'

Just last week Martin - on behalf of MoneySavingExpert and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute - alongside 15 other organisations called on the Government to use the bill to help protect people from an avalanche of online scams.

The coalition of firms calling for action, which also included consumer group Which?, charity Age UK, banking trade body UK Finance, and the City of London Police (which runs Action Fraud), argued that consumers needed to be better protected against the devastating financial and emotional harm caused by cyber crime.

They also wanted online platforms, such as search engines and social media sites, to be given a legal responsibility to protect users from fake and fraudulent content on their sites that lead to scams.

It's now hoped the Government will add protection from online scam ads to the bill when it reaches the 'committee stage'. This is where a bill is considered line-by-line and is normally the next stage after a bill's second reading. It is an opportunity for changes to be made to the wording or for new clauses to be added. 

Announcing the bill today, the Queen said: “My Government will lead the way in ensuring internet safety for all, especially for children, whilst harnessing the benefits of a free, open and secure internet.” See our Queen's Speech 2021 round-up for full details on other announcements, including a student loans shake-up and more rights for renters. 

Anabel Hoult, chief executive of Which?, added: “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.” 

What does the Government say? 

A Government spokesperson said: “Online fraud can have a severe impact on people and businesses. That is why we are working closely with industry, regulators and consumer groups to tackle the issue.

“As part of the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport's Online Advertising Programme, we will consider further regulation for online advertising to reduce online harms including fraud. In addition, the Home Office will bring forward the Fraud Action Plan to tackle this further following this year’s spending review.”

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