The consumer watchdog is calling for the government to give tech giants greater legal responsibility for preventing scam content from appearing on their sites, after hundreds of people shared their often distressing stories of falling victim to convincing purchase scams.
A purchase scam is when a consumer is misled into paying in advance for goods that are never received or are not at all as described. They are increasingly common on popular websites and platforms with criminals creating fake websites and documents that seem genuine to trick their victims.
With 43 million adult social media users in the UK, Which?’s research suggests that some 3.8 million people might have fallen victim to a scam from an advert that appeared on their social media feed.
When Which? separately asked for victims of social media purchase scams to get in touch, its researchers heard from more than 200 people in just 48 hours.
One victim, Christine, ordered CBD oil advertised on Facebook that had been falsely ‘endorsed’ by Fern Britton and David Attenborough. She was promised a sample for £2.50, but £170 was later taken from her bank account.
She told Which? the money was “more than my weekly pension and I’m so upset. It happened weeks ago but I can’t stop thinking about it”. Christine is worried she faces a fight on her hands to get her money back because she did receive a sample, although she doesn’t think it is genuine CBD oil.
Louise from Birmingham regularly shops at Ted Baker and started seeing convincing ads for what she thought was a Ted Baker Outlet store on Twitter over a couple of days. She visited the site linked to the advert and paid £75 for a discounted bag and shoes.
She never received her order and is still waiting for her bank to decide whether it will refund her. The retailer’s Twitter account had already been suspended before Which? flagged it. “I will never, ever buy anything I’ve seen on a social media advert again,” she said.
Which? surveyed 2,000 members of the public, asking those who use social media and search engines about their experiences of adverts on these platforms. It found that nine per cent of social media users had fallen victim to a scam ad on social media feeds. The same proportion of search engine users also reported falling victim to a scam ad on those.
It also revealed that six in 10 (64%) social media users and almost six in 10 (57%) search engine users said they were confident they could spot these scams. But previous Which? research has suggested this confidence is misplaced – which could create a perfect breeding ground for scams.
While the sums of money involved in these scams may appear small to some people, Which?’s investigation suggests that online ad scams are happening on an industrial scale. They also provide fraudsters with sensitive information about victims that could potentially be used to mount future attacks.
Over the last 12 months, Action Fraud says that it has received 83,822 online shopping fraud reports, with reported losses reaching around £62.3 million over that period.
Which? believes social media sites and search engines must be far more proactive in preventing scam ads from appearing on their platforms in the first place, particularly as people are more reliant on shopping and socialising online than ever this winter.
Says Adam French, Consumer Rights Expert at Which?, said:
“Our research suggests that online purchase scams are taking place on an industrial scale, with scam victims suffering significant financial and emotional harm when they are targeted by fraudsters.
“Despite being known for innovation, social media sites and search engines are lagging behind scammers, seemingly taking little responsibility for stopping misinformation and harmful content from reaching their users.
“The government must step in and protect consumers by giving online platforms more legal responsibility to prevent scam content from appearing in the first place.”
Which?’s advice on what to do if you’ve been scammed by an online advert
It is possible to get your money back in many cases, although the process might be time consuming and inconvenient.
If you paid using a credit or debit card your money is covered by card protections. Ask your bank if you’re eligible to claim using chargeback or Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act.
When you use PayPal, your money should be protected by its Buyer Protection policy. You can make a claim through your PayPal account.
If you paid using a bank transfer, contact your bank as soon as possible and ask if it can help you. This kind of fraud on social media is on the rise, according to UK Finance.
Additional statistics from the market research
73 per cent of social media users aged 18-34 said they were confident they could spot a scam, although Which? research earlier this year into scams on Facebook suggested this group may actually be more vulnerable to being scammed on social media.
49 per cent of search engine users surveyed trust that the retailers that appear in their search engine’s results are safe from scams. Only 35 per cent of social media users say they trust the retailers that appear on their social media feed are safe from scams.
Action fraud explainer and advice on online shopping fraud: https://www.actionfraud.
Action Fraud received 83,822 online shopping fraud reports between November 2019 and October 2020, with reported losses reaching around £62.3 million over that period.
Which? surveyed 2,003 adults in UK between 30th October and 2nd November 2020. Fieldwork was carried out online by Opinium and data has been weighted to be representative of the UK population (aged 18+).
The estimates on numbers of adult social media users and people that might have fallen victim to a scam from an advert that appeared on their social media feed are based on the survey results and mid-year ONS population estimates.
Rights of reply
A Facebook company spokesperson said:
“There’s no place for fraudulent or inauthentic behaviour on Facebook and we have removed the pages reported to us by Which?. We invest in people and technology to remove fraud from our platforms, and we urge people to report any suspicious posts to us. We have donated £3 million to Citizens Advice to deliver a UK Scam Action Programme to raise awareness and help victims, and in partnership with the ASA we’ve launched an industry-wide UK Scam Ad Alert system.”
A Google spokesperson said:
“Our priority is showing useful and relevant ads to people when they’re searching for a product or service, while protecting them from nonexistent or misleading offers. We take this responsibility seriously and immediately remove ads that violate our policies. We also continue to improve our verification processes and policies to ensure a safe experience. In 2019, we removed 2.7B bad ads, that’s more than 5,000 ads taken down every minute. Additionally, we encourage users to utilize our tool which allows them to report ads, each complaint is reviewed by a member of our team.”
A Twitter spokesperson said:
“It is against our rules to use scam tactics on Twitter to obtain money or private financial information. Where we identify violations of our rules, we take robust enforcement action. We’re constantly adapting to bad actors’ evolving methods, and we will continue to iterate and improve upon our policies as the industry evolves.”