Fourteen public figures inc Martin Lewis, Sir Richard Branson and Deborah Meaden plead with PM to put scam adverts into the Online Safety Bill

A group of trusted household names, public figures and celebrities, including Martin Lewis OBE, Sir Richard Branson, Deborah Meaden, Duncan Bannatyne OBE, Peter Jones CBE, Phillip Schofield, Holly Willoughby, Dawn French and Robbie Williams, have signed an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for paid-for scam advertising to urgently be included in the upcoming Online Safety Bill.

Led by Martin Lewis – founder of campaigning consumer website MoneySavingExpert.com (MSE) and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute – 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’ 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 in the hundreds of thousands of pounds), because they trusted the reputations of the people used on the adverts.

Lewis, Branson and Meaden are among some of the most-used faces in online fraud according to Action Fraud and the National Cyber Security Centre (1). Alongside them, those who have also been used by scammers and who have signed the letter are Duncan Bannatyne OBE, Rob Brydon MBE, Dawn French, Bear Grylls OBE, Peter Jones CBE, Lorraine Kelly CBE, Davina McCall, Phillip Schofield, Bradley Walsh, Robbie Williams and Holly Willoughby.

For a pdf version of the letter to cut and paste, click here.

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 to 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.

Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, 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.”

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.”

Dragon’s Den investor Deborah Meaden said: “With the growing sophistication of online fraud, it has 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 OBE said: “Back in 2016, my name was used to promote a high-risk currency investment. This carried on for a while and then the scammers moved on to other celebrities, reportedly including Richard Branson, Deborah Meaden and Peter Jones.

“It is outrageous that there are few regulatory powers to curb this type of criminal behaviour and I fully support the call to the Prime Minister for paid-for scam advertising to be urgently included in the upcoming Online Safety Bill. Too many innocent people have lost money and too many well-known people have had their identities used in this erroneous way.”

Background

Campaigners have long been calling for the inclusion of online scam ads in the scope of the Bill (2), in order to protect consumers from the devastating impact of fraud. On 18 October 2021, Martin Lewis gave evidence to the joint committee on the Online Safety Bill, calling for paid-for scam ads to be included in the legislation.

In late October, new Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries MP told members of the joint committee she ‘would love to’ include paid-for scam advertising in the Bill, but was prevented from doing so on ‘legal advice’ received. Martin, MSE and Money and Mental Health, along with Which?, wrote to her shortly after to ask that she publish that advice.

Prior to this, in May this year, MSE and Money and Mental Health, in coalition with 14 other organisations, sent a joint letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel MP and then-Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden MP calling on the Government to use the upcoming Bill to help protect people from an avalanche of online scams. The group renewed its calls in June after the Government failed to include fraud carried out via online advertising in the draft version of the Bill. The view that paid-for scam ads should be included has also been backed by the Financial Conduct Authority, Bank of England, City of London Police, Work and Pensions Committee and Treasury Committee.

In April 2018, Martin Lewis took legal action against Facebook after 1,000 scam adverts abusing his name or image 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 it tackle them via its Scams Action service.

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Notes to editors:

(1)   In 2020, the National Cyber Security Centre reported it had taken down over 300,000 malicious URLs in just four months, linking to fake celebrity-endorsed investment schemes featuring famous faces such as Sir Richard Branson and Martin Lewis. See more here.
In 2018, Action Fraud warned of a worrying rise in scams featuring Martin Lewis and Deborah Meaden. See more here.

(2)   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. Yet 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.