Google UK will rely on a regulator to crack down on scam finance ads

Google is tightening its ad screening rules in the UK after a steep rise in fraudulent adverts online during the pandemic. The search giant has announced that starting in the fall it will only run ads for financial products and services from sources that have been cleared by the UK’s financial watchdog. 

Google said it will update its policy from August 30th and begin enforcing the rules a week later on September 6th. At that point, advertisers will have to demonstrate that they are authorized by the UK Financial Conduct Authority or qualify for its limited exemptions. According to Google, the requirement covers financial products and services that go beyond the regulator’s ambit. 

The decision didn’t happen overnight, however. Google has been on the end of mounting criticism from regulators, law enforcement and consumer groups over its perceived lack of action against scrupulous ads. According to trade body UK Finance, investment scam cases on search engines saw a 32 percent increase last year. These typically involve criminals duping victims into moving their money to a fictitious fund (such as a pension pot) or to pay for a fake investment. Losses incurred from the fake ads totaled over £135 million. 

Meanwhile, the FCA threatened to take legal action against Google and social media companies after it issued 1,200 warnings about fraudulent ads on their platforms, double the amount from 2019. The regulator told a parliamentary committee that it was able to start taking action in the wake of Brexit. In the past, the FCA had been bound by EU rules on financial ads that did not apply to online platforms.

Others blamed Google’s system for the failings. UK consumer group Which? found that 51 percent of the 1,870 search engine users it surveyed didn’t know how to report suspicious ads in search listings. The perceived inertia from Google led some lawmakers to claim that it was content to continue profiting from the bogus ads. MPs told The Guardian that the company was benefiting from online scammers who paid to host ads on its platforms. While the FCA had also paid Google more than £600,000 ($830,000) in 2020 and 2021 to run ‘anti-scam’ ads.

For its part, Google claims it has improved its ad screening rules using a mix of machine learning and human review. The tech giant removed 3.1 billion adverts that violated its policies in 2020 according to its ad transparency report. It also began verifying advertisers in January by requiring them to submit legal identification, business incorporation documents and proof of the country in which they operate. Back in 2018, Google followed in Facebook’s footsteps by banning cryptocurrency ads.

“This new update builds on significant work in partnership with the FCA over the last 18 months to help tackle this issue,” Ronan Harris, vice president and MD, Google UK and Ireland, said in a blog post. “Today’s announcement reflects significant progress in delivering a safer experience for users, publishers and advertisers. While we understand that this policy update will impact a range of advertisers in the financial services space, our utmost priority is to keep users safe on our platforms — particularly in an area so disproportionately targeted by fraudsters.”

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