Martin Lewis, Sir Richard Branson, Deborah Meaden and other public figures issue plea to the PM to put scam ads in the Online Safety Bill
Fourteen trusted household names, public figures and celebrities – Martin Lewis, Sir Richard Branson, Deborah Meaden, Duncan Bannatyne, Rob Brydon, Dawn French, Bear Grylls, Peter Jones, Lorraine Kelly, Davina McCall, Phillip Schofield, Bradley Walsh, Robbie Williams and Holly Willoughby – have signed an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for paid-for scam advertising to be urgently included in the upcoming Online Safety Bill.
Led by Martin Lewis – founder of this site, MoneySavingExpert.com, and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute charity – the signees of the letter have all had their names and faces used by scammers in online advertising, often thousands of times, luring victims into fraudulent financial schemes or 'selling' them fake health cures.
Currently, there are few meaningful powers to prevent scam adverts from appearing online, and regulators are unable to punish the big tech platforms that get paid to publish them. Some victims have lost life-changing amounts of money, even their life savings (sometimes hundreds of thousands of pounds), because they trusted the reputations of the people used on the adverts.
Martin, Richard Branson and Deborah Meaden are among some of the most-used faces in online fraud, according to Action Fraud and the National Cyber Security Centre.
Letter: 'The UK is facing an epidemic of scam adverts'
Here's a copy of the letter:
Tuesday 16 November 2021
Dear Prime Minister,
The UK is facing an epidemic of scam adverts. Every day, criminals are scamming innocent people out of life-changing amounts of money or risking their health by selling them fake health cures. Consumers are being targeted on a scale we have never seen before.
One of the most common online scammers' tricks is misusing the names and faces of well-known, trusted public figures – our names and faces – to give them a false legitimacy. All the signatories of this letter have been used in scammers' adverts online, some thousands of times. We are writing to ask you to urgently include regulation of paid-for scam adverts within the Online Safety Bill.
Many of us have had victims get in touch and have heard their tears after losing their life savings – sometimes hundreds of thousands of pounds – because they trusted what they thought was us. This cannot continue. It devastates lives.
We can't protect the public from these criminals, but you can. Near inaction by big technology firms means things are getting worse, not better – so we are pleading with you to step up and help in this fight to protect people.
Our current advertising rules were set up to police the likes of soap manufacturers making false claims about how white they can clean sheets – not to tackle sophisticated, psychologically adept, digital organised crime, based around the world. This leaves many scammers untraced, uninvestigated, and unpunished.
There are little powers out there to prevent online scam adverts or get recourse for victims. Regulators have few meaningful tools to punish platforms that get paid to publish them. It is therefore distressing that while your Government has, thankfully, chosen to include user-generated scams in the Online Safety Bill, it has excluded paid-for scam adverts.
The distinction between user-generated content and adverts is blurred in our digital age. This would result in the law covering someone making a scam post, but not if they pay to promote the same content. It seems a strange system.
Your Government has said it wants to eventually tackle scam adverts through changing advertising regulation – but this will have to go through a lengthy process of legislating in the face of fierce opposition from a powerful advertising industry.
Meanwhile, huge swathes of people will continue to see their financial, physical and mental health destroyed after falling victim to one of these scams. Instead, it could be tackled quite simply by being treated just like user-generated online scams in the Online Safety Bill that's already going through Parliament.
Scammers' ability to reach the public must be cut off. If you are serious about the concrete commitment you've made to deal with online fraud, please, let's speedily start protecting the victims of scam adverts from the wolves – saving livelihoods and possibly also lives.
Martin Lewis OBE, Duncan Bannatyne OBE, Sir Richard Branson, Deborah Meaden, Rob Brydon MBE, Dawn French, Bear Grylls OBE, Peter Jones CBE, Lorraine Kelly CBE, Davina McCall, Phillip Schofield, Bradley Walsh, Robbie Williams, Holly Willoughby
Martin: 'All of our faces have been used by criminals in adverts online to try and rip-off the vulnerable'
Martin spoke outside 10 Downing Street today, just after sending the letter. Listen to what he said:
Martin Lewis, MSE and Money and Mental Health, among other consumer and industry organisations, have been campaigning to protect the public from an avalanche of scam adverts, and in the face of inaction from tech firms, have been calling on the Government to include paid-for scam advertising in its flagship Online Safety Bill.
To date, the Home Secretary and current and former Culture Secretaries have said the Government wants to tackle online advertising fraud separately from this piece of legislation. Meanwhile, huge swathes of people will continue to see their financial, physical and mental health destroyed after falling victim to scams they see through online advertising. This letter is urging the Prime Minister to change this position and finally put paid-for scam advertising in the bill.
Currently, the scope of the bill only includes user-generated content, scams that might appear in 'organic' search results – results seen below any ads on an online search engine – and most user-generated and brand-generated social media posts. Paid-for adverts that appear in internet search results and on social media, as well as promoted posts on social media, and scams promoted via profiles on dating sites, are not covered by the draft bill.
Martin: 'Failing to tackle this will cost more people their livelihoods, and their physical and mental health too'
Martin said: "Right now, the Government's planned Online Safety Bill isn't just blindly ignoring the epidemic of scam adverts that the UK faces – it's actually going to make it worse.
"By making big tech responsible for user-generated scams but not paid-for scam adverts, it creates an incentive for criminal scammers to switch to advertising. To say it will look at scam ads regulation later, likely years away, when this regulation will make it worse, is simply perverse. We can't wait.
"Scams don't just steal people's money, they can take their self-respect too, and those with mental health problems are three times more likely to be affected.
"After hearing excuse after excuse from the Government departments responsible for this legislation, I now turn to the Prime Minister and plead with him to take this opportunity to put paid-for scam ads in the Online Safety Bill – so big tech is responsible for what they're paid to publish. Only then will they take it seriously and deny scammers the airtime.
"In some ways I regret the fact his face isn't being used as well as mine and the other signatories of this letter. If it was, I doubt we'd be having such a difficulty persuading the Government of the importance of this.
"Failure to tackle this, and tackle it now, will betray his Government's promise to create world-leading online protection and, more importantly, will cost more people their livelihoods, and their physical and mental health too."
Martin Lewis called for protection against scam ads outside the Houses of Parliament today
Sir Richard Branson: 'It's deeply concerning that people may be tricked into parting with their money'
Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Group founder, said: "We know there has been a sharp rise in scams since the start of the pandemic, and it's deeply concerning that people may be tricked into parting with their money by someone pretending to be me.
"This is a global issue, and we are doing all we can to unmask scammers, but we can only do this by working together and ensuring the public are protected from these terrifyingly deceptive tactics.
"The Online Safety Bill is a positive step forward for the UK, but it's essential that paid-for scam advertising is included as part of this new legislation."
Deborah Meaden: 'It is becoming glaringly obvious that the Government needs to now step in'
Deborah Meaden, Dragons' Den investor, added: "With the growing sophistication of online fraud, it is becoming glaringly obvious that the Government needs to now step in to stop criminals taking advantage of people and destroying their finances.
"For too long, people have fallen victim to scams because they trusted that myself and others were behind these false ads.
"It's not enough for us to warn people through the press and media – something needs to be done to stop the ads appearing in the first place. Online scam advertising must be regulated and it must be included in the Online Safety Bill."
Duncan Bannatyne: 'Too many innocent people have lost money'
What does the Government say?
In response to the letter, a UK Government spokesperson said: "We have been clear that online fraud is a huge problem and the Government is continuing to explore additional legislative and non-legislative solutions to combat it. We're looking into the entire issue of online advertising including whether tougher regulation is needed. The Government will respond to this letter in due course."
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