Martin Lewis pleads with Government to 'heed the call' for inclusion of scam ads in Online Safety Bill following Joint Committee’s recommendation

Martin Lewis — founder of MoneySavingExpert.com (MSE) and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute — is pleading with the Government to 'do the bloomin’ obvious' and include paid-for scam adverts in the scope of the Online Safety Bill. It comes after MPs and Lords today made the recommendation to the Government to do so as part of its final report on the upcoming Bill.

The Joint Committee for the draft Bill, chaired by Damian Collins MP, have echoed campaigners’ calls and stated paid-for advertising should be covered by the legislation. It comes after Martin Lewis, MSE and Money and Mental Health – among other consumer and industry organisations – have been campaigning for years to protect the public from an avalanche of scam adverts.

In the face of inaction from tech firms, campaigners have been calling on the Government to include paid-for scam advertising in the scope of its flagship Online Safety Bill (1) to protect consumers from the financial and mental harm of fraud and scam advertising.

Responding to the Joint Committee’s report, Martin Lewis, founder of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute and MoneySavingExpert.com, who gave evidence to the committee in October, and whose name and face, along with Sir Richard Branson’s, are some of the most used in scam adverts (2) said:

"I’m delighted the joint committee has come to the right decision, and backed our call, and the call of all the key charities, consumer groups, industry bodies, police, and regulators, to do the bloomin’ obvious and include scam adverts in the Online Safety Bill. Now we just have to hope the Government sees sense and reverses its perverse decision to exclude them.

"Scams don’t just steal people’s money – they can take their self-respect too. As well as damaging the mental health of victims, it disproportionately hurts those with existing mental health problems who are three times more likely to be affected. Scams and fraud aren’t just a financial issue, they’re a core wellbeing issue.

"We are desperate for the government to listen to the joint committee on this and change its plans. The current scope of the Government’s planned Bill doesn’t just blindly ignore 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 the scam adverts they get paid to publish, it creates an incentive for criminal scammers to switch resources to advertising as there will be less scrutiny.

"So I will again plead with the Government, to please heed our call, and now the call of the parliamentarians on the joint committee and agree to put scam ads in the Bill, as failing to do so will continue to leave millions of people exposed to the horrendous damage that scammers can cause."

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 featured falsely on the adverts.

The Government must now respond to the committee’s report within two months, and the Bill will go to Parliament for further examination and final approval in 2022. 

Further background

Regulating scam ads has been a long-standing campaign at MSE. On 18 October 2021, Martin 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.

In November of this year, a group of trusted household names, public figures and celebrities signed an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for paid-for scam advertising to urgently be included in the upcoming Bill. Led by Martin, the list included Sir Richard Branson, Deborah Meaden, Robbie Williams and Duncan Bannatyne OBE, who had 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. 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, and the letter was to urge the Prime Minister to change this position and finally put paid-for scam advertising in the Bill.

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)   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.

(2)   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.