Today’s Which? report showing the widespread nature of online financial scams draws attention to the problem that StepChange Debt Charity has previously worked hard to highlight of adverts impersonating debt charities, to try to hoodwink people into revealing personal information that is then sold on to commercial firms who may try to sell a debt solution to the individual which may be expensive or inappropriate for their needs.
Last year, StepChange ran its “Make Sure It’s Us” campaign to raise awareness among members of the public, and lobbied Google to improve its processes for vetting advertisers. Despite Google taking action in this area, there are still far too many impersonator advertisers slipping through the net, and appearing not just on Google but increasingly on social media platforms too. One of the root causes of the problem stems from the patchy regulatory oversight structure in the IVA market, where fees are high and selling incentives poorly aligned to consumers’ best interests. Advertising regulation is also not currently powerful enough to address these root issues.
Richard Lane, Director of External Affairs at StepChange, says: “People are shocked when they realise that predators are out there impersonating legitimate debt charities, determined to make money by cynically exploiting people in vulnerable financial circumstances. Yet, to date, regulators and search engines have failed to put in place robust mechanisms to stop this from happening. Last year, we reported around 100 offending adverts, and despite the changes this year we have already reported 56. It takes time, effort and money to pursue each of these impersonator incidents, and has become a frustrating game of cat and mouse which is ultimately harmful and damaging to people who are already facing enough difficulty without this additional element.
“We continue to urge the regulators and those responsible for accepting online advertising, including Google, to go further and do more to clamp down on these offenders more effectively. This is more important than ever at this time, when more people will be looking online for debt help in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In the meantime, be careful – if the website address isn’t stepchange.org, then the organisation you’re dealing with isn’t StepChange.”