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UK financial watchdog dithers over £680k refund from Google (in ad credits, mind you) for running anti-fraud ads

MPs give FCA a telling-off for wasting taxpayer money

Updated The UK's financial regulator is refusing to say whether it will accept an offer by Google to pay back more than £600,000 spent on online ads warning people about the dangers of money scams.

News that Google made the offer came to light earlier this week during oral evidence [PDF] to the Treasury Committee hearing on economic crime. Among those giving evidence was Mark Steward, director of enforcement and market insight at the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).

He was quizzed by Rushanara Ali, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, who wanted to know about the £600,000 the FCA is paying Google to run ads warning about online financial scams.

She asked: "Is it appropriate for a regulator to have to post warnings while Google profits from social media companies that make money out of fraud, or should you be empowered to make it do that without you having to waste money?"

Steward replied that the FCA preferred not to run ads warning people before agreeing that "the irony of us having to pay social media to publish warnings about advertising that they're receiving money from is not lost on us."

He went on to say that Google had, in fact, offered to refund the cash as a credit against further ad spending.

"We have been in discussions with Google, which has offered us a credit in relation to these expenses in the future, which we are in the process of considering at the moment," he said.

Pressed by Ali whether Google had confirmed that they would return the money, Steward replied: "I'm not sure they've gone that far."

"It ought to," said Ali. "It is profiting from fraud and costing the Financial Conduct Authority money. I would be really interested to know what happens with that discussion, whether you are going to get your money back and whether it can give you an undertaking that this is not going to happen going forward."

The FCA declined to comment formally on whether it intends to take up Google's offer, although The Register understands the matter is still being discussed and a decision is expected shortly.

The Register has since discovered the FCA has paid Google £676,000 for ads – £483,000 in 2020 and £193,000 in 2021 so far – and the £600,000 sum quoted is an "aggregate figure."

No one from Google was available to confirm whether the offer had been made, whether it is still on the table, or whether taxpayers' money would be returned in cash rather than a credit. ®

Updated to add at 09:12 UTC on 21 June:

A Google spokesperson told El Reg: “Protecting consumers and legitimate businesses operating in the financial sector is a priority for us. We have been working in consultation with the FCA for over a year to implement new measures and we are developing further restrictions to financial services advertising to tackle the scale of this issue. To help protect people from financial fraud in the UK, we have pledged $5m in advertising credits to support public awareness campaigns.”

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