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Scam victims find same fraudulent ads lurking on Facebook and Google even after flagging them up

Consumer watchdog blasts platforms for onerous reporting mechanisms

UK consumer watchdog Which? has found that ad giants Google and Facebook are failing to remove online scam ads even after victims report them.

A third of those reporting scam ads to Google found the same offending ads still present, while the figure was a quarter for antisocial media site Facebook.

In terms of gullibility, of those who told Which? they'd fallen victim to a malicious ad, just over a quarter were duped by something on Facebook, 19 per cent got caught through Google adverts, and a mere 3 per cent were tricked through Twitter.

The low score for Twitter gives one hope that users don't believe everything they read on the platform, although the relatively high percentage for Facebook is perhaps a little depressing.

One victim, named by Which? as "Mandy", spanked £85 on what she thought were two pairs of boots via a fake Clark's clearance sale on Facebook, only to receive a big box of sunglasses in return. "I've had a lot of back and forth with my bank over the past six months," she complained to Which? "trying to prove that I didn't receive what I ordered."

For its part, Facebook has since pulled the ad and account of the sunglasses sender.

Detailed demographics were not immediately available, and the survey (conducted over four days in February) considered 2,000 UK "nationally representative" adults. 298 reported falling victim to a scam advert. The likes of Bing and Instagram didn't get a look-in, although Which? told The Register that Facebook and Google "had the highest proportions of people saying they'd fallen victim as a result of an advert on these platforms."

Google told Which?: "We're constantly reviewing ads, sites and accounts to ensure they comply with our policies. As a result of our enforcement actions (proactive and reactive), our team blocked or removed over 3.1 billion ads for violating our policies."

The search giant went on to highlight the methods by which users can flag iffy advertising and said: "We take action on potentially bad ads reported to us and these complaints are always manually reviewed."

Which? begged to differ and noted that 51 per cent of the 1,800 search engine users in its survey didn't know how to report suspicious ads. 32 per cent of victims didn't know how to tell Google about a scam. Which?'s own researchers found the process of reporting fraudulent content somewhat tiresome, remarking that "it involved navigating five complex pages of information."

Asked about this, a Google spokesperson told The Reg: "We have several policies and protections in place for the promotion of financial services as well as a tool for consumers to flag this content directly to us, and if we discover sites that are breaking our policies, we take appropriate action."

Which? said: "The biggest reason for not reporting adverts that caused a scam to Facebook was that victims didn't think the platform would do anything about it or take it down – this was the response from nearly a third (31 per cent) of victims."

A Facebook spokesperson told Which?: "Fraudulent activity is not allowed on Facebook. Our 35,000-strong team of safety and security experts work alongside sophisticated AI to proactively identify and remove this content, and we urge people to report any suspicious activity to us. Our teams disable billions of fake accounts every year."

Which is all well and good, but it's also closing the stable door long after the horse has bolted.

Adam French, Consumer Rights Expert at Which?, said: "Our latest research has exposed significant flaws with the reactive approach taken by tech giants including Google and Facebook in response to the reporting of fraudulent content – leaving victims worryingly exposed to scams.

"Online platforms must be given a legal responsibility to identify, remove and prevent fake and fraudulent content on their sites. The case for including scams in the Online Safety Bill is overwhelming and the government needs to act now."

In the meantime, we'd urge the usual caution around ads lurking in social media feeds or search results. If something is too good to be true, it probably is. ®

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