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Martin Lewis: Enough is enough – the Government must include protection against scam ads in its Online Safety Bill

In a no holds barred evidence session to both Houses of Parliament, Martin Lewis passionately called for scam ads to be included in the online safety bill. The MoneySavingExpert and Money and Mental Health Policy Institute founder warned that an alarming number of people take their own lives after being scammed and much more needs to be done to protect them. 

'We gave the Government notice four years ago, this country is facing an epidemic of scams'

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Currently, paid-for adverts that appear in internet search results, paid-for adverts and promoted posts that appear on social media, and scams promoted through profiles on dating sites are NOT covered by the draft Bill - something Martin, alongside Which? chief economist and director of policy and advocacy, Rocio Concha, argued against in today's hearing.

At present, the new Online Safety Bill is only due to cover user-generated scams, scams that appear in 'organic' search results - which are the results you see below any ads on an online search engine - and most user-generated and brand-generated social media posts.

You can watch the full committee meeting on the Parliament Live TV website, although we have interspersed some clips into the news story below. You can also see our 25+ ways to stop scams guide for info on what to look out for, how to protect yourself, and what to do if you're a victim of a scam.

'People take their own lives, or consider taking their own lives, because of fraud'

During the meeting, which took place on 18 October, Martin explained that while he "does not do ads", fraudsters often use the face of famous people, including himself, to legitimise scams. Martin gave the example of a lady who had bladder cancer and had savings earmarked for her granddaughter’s wedding. She invested it because she wanted it go a bit further, saying: “If Martin’s sponsoring it, it must be alright.” She lost £15,000 alone just trying to get the money back.

In another story Martin spoke of, a woman whose grandchild’s parents had died had put the money that they had saved into a scam because, Martin's face was on it and she “trusted me”.

Martin explained: “If you wonder why I get so passionate about it; I have spent 20 years trying to do consumer protection work and I see people’s lives being destroyed. It is not just people losing money. If you have just given away your retirement fund that you’ve worked 30 years for and you feel stupid - and they’re not stupid, but they feel stupid because these are really sophisticated and clever people - you don’t recover from that in years."

He added: “I find it deeply frustrating to be told that 'well, we need to do some research on this' and 'we might get a fix in a couple of years'. People take their own lives, or consider taking their own lives, because they blame themselves for the scam that they’ve fallen to."

Martin's warning comes as new research from Which? today reveals that the estimated average drop in well-being for victims of fraud is the equivalent of £2,509 a year. This estimate is even higher - £3,684 - for online fraud. This well-being impact is substantially more than the average financial sum lost to fraud, according to the consumer group.

'This isn't all vulnerable people - this is also solicitors and univeristy lecturers'

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'The Prime Minister and the Government must take urgent action'

Martin explained that he'd had meetings with officials on the issue of online scam ads - and, in response to a question from a committee member, said that a secretary of state had even told him to sue Facebook and not to settle.

Martin sued the social media platform in 2018, although it settled out of court and agreed to launch a dedicated tool to report scam ads, as well as donate £3 million to a Citizens Advice project to help tackle them. Martin had been told that if he did not settle Facebook may only have had to pay out £50,000 in court.

Martin said: "The blank reaction I get from the Government who say 'we need to look at it more carefully'. We've had meeting after meeting after meeting. Enough is enough. People take their own lives off the back of being scammed."

He added: "If Boris Johnson was as trusted as me, so that he appeared in scam adverts as often as I do I wouldn’t be having to fight for this cause - the first thing that would have been in this Bill is regulation of scam adverts. I would call on the Prime Minister and the Government – just put this in the Bill. You don’t need this fight, you have an opportunity to do good.”

Ms Concha also explained that waiting two years for the Bill to come into force isn't good enough. She said: "We have provided all of this evidence. It's clear this is a big area of harm. So why do we want to wait at least two years and in the meantime people are being affected by this and their lives are being destroyed? I just feel that they [the Government] realised the level of the harm a little bit late."

'If Boris Johnson was as trusted as me, so that he appeared in scam adverts, I wouldn't be having to do this'

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'Do not let them off the hook - we need to make big tech responsible too'

Martin also warned legislators not to let big tech companies off the hook. He said these companies become publishers when they take payment for and display scam adverts, and should therefore take responsibility as publishers. 

He likened it to owning a pub: "What you decide to serve in the pub you are responsible for, and when you are serving adverts and you are being paid money to publish those adverts, you’re a publisher and you should take responsibility as a publisher and it’s about time we cleaned up the law on that.”

Agreeing with Martin, Ms Concha said that Which? continuously finds failings in the system because there is no statutory regime to stop these scams from getting through. She said: "There were companies that were already on the FCA [Financial Conduct Authority] warning list that you could find on Google and Bing. So it is quite clear that this is not a priority for the online platforms. They are not taking it seriously."

Martin added that it doesn’t really matter if this issue is resolved using technology or human beings, just as long as companies take responsibility. He said: “If you are making billions of pounds from advertising and you do not have good enough technology to stop scam adverts that destroy people’s lives and potentially their health, like with the diet pills, then you’re going to have to pay human beings to pre-moderate them.

“We should be very careful not to allow them [tech firms] to set the narrative that this should be a technological solution. I don’t give two hoots whether it’s a tech solution or a manual solution. I just want to see a solution.”

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