Fraudsters target victims by hijacking Google’s search engine with phoney financial adverts


Fraudsters target victims by hijacking Google’s search engine with phoney financial adverts, consumer group finds

  • One victim lost £160,000 after clicking on a link for an investment scheme 
  • Fraudsters are exploiting people seeking debt help with ads imitating charities
  • Fraudsters are exploiting Google’s 21-day grace period to target victims. 

Fraudsters are hijacking Google’s search engine to target victims with phoney financial adverts, consumer group Which? found. 

Investigators discovered the scams after searches for terms such as ‘top Isa’ and ‘best bonds’. 

It came after one victim lost £160,000 after clicking on a link for an investment scheme from a swindler posing as a respected firm.   

Fraudsters are hijacking Google’s search engine to target victims with phoney financial adverts

Fraudsters are also exploiting vulnerable people seeking debt help with ads imitating charities. 

Advertisers promoting financial services and products on Google are given 21 days to submit verification documentation. 

Which? warned that fraudsters are exploiting this grace period to exploit victims. 

Google said this benefit will be removed for some users from this month. 

But Which? says all advertisers should be verified before their services are published online. 

Money editor Jenny Ross said: ‘People should be able to trust the ads they see on Google are legitimate.’   

Google said protecting users from advert scams and fraud was ‘a key priority’.

The consumer group found suspect ads when searching for debt charity StepChange.

Distressed motorists at the roadside after a traffic accident have also been targeted by ‘click-to-dial’ ads that lead those looking for their insurer’s phone number to instead contact claims management companies, Which? said.

One victim lost £160,000 after clicking on a link for an investment scheme from a swindler posing as a respected firm

One victim lost £160,000 after clicking on a link for an investment scheme from a swindler posing as a respected firm

Consumers are led to believe these firms are working on behalf of their insurer to submit a claim, however their details are passed on to third-party companies and people can find themselves owing thousands of pounds for services which would have been covered by their genuine insurer.

Which? found search results for ‘Admiral claims number’, ‘NFU phone number’ and ‘Aviva claims department’ brought up adverts for third party websites referring to themselves with terms such as the ‘official claims line’ and ‘claims department’.

A statement from Google given to Which? said: ‘Protecting users from ad scams and fraud is a key priority. To more effectively prevent predatory financial ads in the UK, we now require certain advertisers promoting financial products or services to complete our business operations verification programme.

‘This will allow us to gain more information about the advertisers’ identity, business model and relationships with third parties so users can trust the ads they’re seeing.

‘This policy update follows months of engagement with and input from the FCA (Financial Conduct Authority) to ensure we’re effectively addressing the bad actors responsible for predatory financial ads.’

Google said protecting users from advert scams and fraud was 'a key priority'

Google said protecting users from advert scams and fraud was ‘a key priority’

Richard Lane, director of external affairs at StepChange, said: ‘People are shocked when they realise that predators are out there impersonating legitimate debt charities, determined to make money by cynically exploiting people in vulnerable financial circumstances.

‘Yet to date, regulators and search engines have failed to put in place robust mechanisms to stop this from happening. Last year, we reported around 100 offending adverts, and despite the changes this year we have already reported 56.

‘It takes time, effort and money to pursue each of these impersonator incidents, and it has become a frustrating game of cat and mouse which is ultimately harmful and damaging to people who are already facing enough difficulty without this additional element.

‘We continue to urge the regulators and those responsible for accepting online advertising, including Google, to go further and do more to clamp down on these offenders more effectively.

‘This is more important than ever at this time, when more people will be looking online for debt help in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, be careful – if the website address isn’t stepchange.org, then the organisation you’re dealing with isn’t StepChange.’

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