Being under siege from scammers is horrible – and I have first-hand experience. Over the past few days, scammers have used every ploy known to man and woman to part me from my cash.
They have threatened, persuaded, befriended and hurried me. One day, I received 17 missed calls – all from scammers. Nothing but persistent.
You may think I must have clicked on some shady link online, or suffered a terrible data breach to attract such an horrendous bombardment. But sadly no.
Convincing: Rachel, right, was led to what appeared to be endorsements from ITV’s This Morning, top, and other media outlets
All I did to unleash this onslaught was what thousands of people do every day. I typed into search engine Google the words ‘best UK investments’ and ‘how to invest’. I then clicked on the top search result for each and entered my contact details for more information.
Many of us turn to search engines every day for information about how to invest. With interest rates from savings at record lows, more people than ever are going online to find an investment that will produce a better return.
Yet what our investigation reveals is how dangerous that process can be. It also offers yet more evidence that urgent action is now needed to tackle the mounting tide of financial crime, as The Mail on Sunday has been calling for in its Nail The Scammers campaign.
We believe a centralised police unit should be set up to target these financial fraudsters and drive them out of business.
Of course, there are reputable sources of investment information online. But often – above these trustworthy sources in online searches – are adverts from fraudsters and unethical companies shamelessly peddling their wares.
Fraudulent cryptocurrency outfits will often pay to appear as the top search result, pushing down the likes of the Government-funded Money Advice Service and the Financial Conduct Authority – the City regulator.
Google has promised to crack down on adverts from financial scammers. From the end of next month, it says it will only accept financial adverts from companies authorised by the FCA.
But that is more than six weeks away, during which time it is inevitable that more victims will lose their savings to fraudsters.
Experts warn that even when the new rules come in, it may not be enough to stop scammers advertising via Google.
Not all the adverts are scams. Fortunately, I identified the telltale signs of scammers and unregulated cryptocurrency sellers – and I did not hand over any money.
But many of the fraudulent websites do look genuine and plausible. Seven out of ten financial scams start online.
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN I TYPED ‘HOW TO INVEST’…
I clicked on the first search result on Google, which sent me to an article that appeared to be from the BBC. It said Amazon had launched a new investment platform called Bitcoin Prime, which ‘aims to help families become wealthier’.
Every detail was a lie, yet the website looked so realistic it would be easy to fall for it. The article included made-up quotes from Amazon founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos, and logos suggesting that Bitcoin Prime had featured in reports on BBC2, The Sun, The Guardian and the Daily Mail.
Within minutes of entering my contact details, I received a call from ‘Mira’, who claimed to be based in ‘Kings Town, London’ – a place that does not exist. She confirmed the company had been set up by Bezos and that I could enjoy minimum investment returns of between 50 and 65 per cent.
I told her I planned to retire soon and so couldn’t afford to take any risk with my savings.
‘There is a 1 per cent chance of risk,’ she said. ‘So out of $100 you invest, you may only have $99.’
When I expressed some wariness, she snapped: ‘You’re just being sceptical.’
…AND WHEN I TYPED IN ‘BEST UK INVESTMENTS’
When I keyed the words ‘best UK investments’ into Google, the top search result led to an article that appeared to be from the Daily Mirror about an incredible new investment opportunity vouched for by Holly Willoughby, the presenter of This Morning on ITV.
It looked just like the Daily Mirror website, including the masthead and adverts.
It was only upon looking closely that it became clear it was a spoofed web page. Every detail had been faked – including Willoughby’s involvement.
I clicked through and gave my contact details. Minutes later, I received a call from ‘Jack’, who advised me to use his company’s ‘special algorithm’ to invest in a range of cryptocurrencies.
I asked him if this was the service used by Willoughby.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘And Elon Musk and Boris Johnson as well.’
He reassured me the service was ideal for first-time investors because all the work is done by an algorithm, taking out the chance of human error.
‘The machine says what the best cryptocurrencies are to invest in today,’ he said.
‘So we don’t have to think or research. An idiot can use it.’
Jack told me that I needed to provide a copy of my ID in order to invest. When I suggested I could drop it off in person – as he claimed he was working from The Shard in London – he baulked at the idea.
He made excuses about how everything needed to be done digitally as they operated on the ‘blockchain’.
Later, I got a call from his colleague ‘Anthony’, who said that if I didn’t invest there and then, I’d lose my chance for ever.
‘If I hang up from this call, I will have to delete you from my list,’ he said. ‘I have 1,000 calls to make and the people I am ringing all want to make a profit.’
WE NEED ACTION NOW TO THWART CROOKS
Google has promised to crack down on bogus financial adverts, but not everyone is convinced that is enough.
Gareth Shaw, head of money at the consumer organisation Which?, says: ‘For the past decade, we have heard Google make commitments to stop scam and copycat websites taking advantage of its advertising platform. Yet, we still hear from people who have been duped.
‘When we report bogus adverts to Google, it takes them down, only for them to pop up again a few days later. So we reserve judgment on the efficacy of its new strategy – the proof will be in the pudding.’
Another solution was proposed last week by a coalition of consumer groups, charities and industry bodies – including Age UK, the Investment Association, UK Finance and Which?. They want the Government to include paid-for online advertising in the Online Safety Bill, soon to start its passage through Parliament. This would put responsibility on Google, Facebook and other social media and search engine firms to better regulate whom they accept adverts from.
‘Failing to include online advertising in the Bill leaves too much room for criminals to exploit online systems,’ the coalition says.
So far, the Government has refused. In response to calls for online adverts to be included, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said: ‘Paid for advertising will not be in the scope of the Online Safety Bill.
‘However, we are considering tougher regulation on online advertising to clamp down on scams through the Online Advertising Programme. We are also considering other options to drive down fraud and to keep the public safe.’
WHAT DOES GOOGLE HAVE TO SAY FOR ITSELF?
The Mail on Sunday shared the bogus adverts we clicked on with Google. It said the companies behind the adverts were now ‘under investigation’.
Google, which is part of £1,250billion parent company Alphabet, also said the reason it was not introducing new, tougher advertising rules sooner was to give advertisers time to adjust.
Google added that it had taken a number of actions against scammers, and pledged $5million (£3.65million) in advertising credits to support public awareness campaigns in the UK.
Last week, it told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Protecting consumers and legitimate businesses operating in the financial services sector is a priority. We have been working in consultation with the FCA for over a year to implement new measures and have recently announced further restrictions, requiring financial services advertisers to be authorised by the FCA as part of our efforts to tackle this evolving issue.’
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