The tech titan has a huge influence over our buying decisions - as the companies hoping to sell to us know only too well. They also know that the higher up they appear in the search engine’s results, the more likely they are to grab our attention.
To secure those top spots, many will pay to bypass the complex algorithms that determine the ranking of results for a particular search term.
The problem is, scammers are getting in on the act. We’ve found that fake ads for car insurers, investment firms and even debt charities are regularly greeting Google users at the top of results pages.
Worryingly, this isn’t a new phenomenon.
A year ago, we highlighted the prevalence of misleading and outright scam adverts targeting savers hunting for a better return. Simple search terms such as ‘best cash Isa’ and ‘best savings rates’ were leading people to firms offering complex, high-risk investment products such as mini-bonds (essentially a loan to a small company in exchange for a fixed rate of interest).
The FCA has now banned ads for mini-bonds because of concerns they were being promoted to investors who ‘do not have the experience to assess and manage the risks involved.’
Despite this, the regulator has spent tens of thousands of pounds this year on its own ‘counter-adverts’ to warn people against high-risk or scam ‘investment opportunities.’
Run a quick search for any number of simple savings terms and you’ll soon see why: dubious-looking ‘investment finder’ services still dominate results. A colleague completed a form on one such site while investigating the problem and was contacted by someone claiming to be from SGZ Bank Ireland.
While the website she was directed to appeared legitimate, alarm bells rang when she discovered it had only been registered a month ago. After we contacted parent company, DZ Bank in Germany, which told us the SGZ Bank Ireland part of its operations had been closed for years, the rogue site was taken down and a warning about it has now appeared on the FCA’s register.
The warning signs aren’t always easy to spot. We heard from one victim (Hannah) who lost £160,000 after clicking on a Google advert for what looked like an Aviva investment product.
The fraudster she was dealing with had assumed the identity of a real Aviva employee, so when Hannah looked him up on Linkedin she had no reason to believe he wasn’t genuine. She also checked the FCA warning list but found no mention of Aviva impersonators (although one appeared just days later).
Hannah has since been reimbursed under the terms of the authorised push payment scams voluntary code, after her bank decided that she had done her due diligence and was not to blame. But her story shows the damage these rogue adverts can do - and how convincing they can be.
Stressed-out drivers looking to speak to their insurer after an accident are another popular target for rogue advertisers, who hijack search results for insurers’ contact details and pose as their claims departments.
In reality, drivers’ details are passed onto third-party companies and they can find themselves owing thousands of pounds for services that would have been covered and paid for by their insurer.
To avoid these ‘click-to-dial’ scams, check your policy documents to find the genuine number for your insurer’s claims department and save it into your phone.
Fraudsters are also using Google to target vulnerable people seeking debt help with ‘lead generator’ ads imitating debt charities. They encourage people to submit personal details that are then sold on.
People are later contacted and pushed to take on Individual Voluntary Agreements (IVAs) - legally binding debt repayment plans which can be inappropriate and expensive.
Our search for leading debt charity Stepchange returned an ad for ‘stepchanging.co.uk’ in the top spot - a very subtle variation on the genuine URL: stepchange.org.
Stepchange has described tackling such ads as a ‘frustrating game of cat and mouse.’ It reported around 100 offending adverts last year, and has reported 56 already this year despite measures introduced by Google to crack down on them.
This example alone shows that more needs to be done.
When we raised our concerns, Google told us that ‘protecting users from ad scams is a key priority’, and pointed to its new advertiser verification programme.
Under its new rules, advertisers promoting financial services or products now have to submit documentation to verify their legal identities. But they have 21 days to do so - during which time their ads will remain live, giving scammers ample opportunity to cash in, even if their ads are ultimately taken down.
Google said it’s removing this grace period for some users from September, but didn’t explain how these users will be identified.
We believe all advertisers should be verified before their ads are published. Google plans to extend the verification programme beyond financial services, but this is to be rolled out in phases. In the meantime, we’re calling for the search giant to flag ads posted by unverified advertisers so people can take extra care when deciding whether or not to click through.
As things stand, though, it’s very much a case of ‘browser beware.’
Jenny Ross is money editor at Which?
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