StepChange welcomes Google’s crackdown on exploitative debt service ads

Following a campaign by StepChange Debt Charity which drew attention to the misleading advertisers impersonating reputable debt charities, Google has today announced new steps to restrict debt services advertising only to firms meeting new accreditation standards. These will be subject to an application and approval process, and will take effect from mid-November. StepChange welcomes this intervention and now urges other digital advertising platforms to adopt a similar approach.

While many debt firms advertise and operate legitimately, an increasing number of unregulated lead generation firms have entered the market. Some of these third party intermediaries, who sell “hot leads”, often to the highest bidder, have been advertising against search terms that would typically be used by people searching online for reputable debt charities. For the unwary, this has proved to be a trap. To protect consumers, debt charities like StepChange have had to compete to ensure that the information surfaced to users in ads leads to their genuine services that can remedy credit or debt problems.

Google is now introducing a system under which only certain types of organisations will be allowed to advertise debt services on its platform. In essence, if an organisation does not have relevant FCA authorisation or does not have regulated Insolvency Practitioner status, it will no longer be allowed to advertise in this way.

Matthew Lavine, product policy specialist, Google, said: “We are delighted to be able to implement this global policy which we believe will provide further protections for vulnerable users who come to Google for information on how to remedy their debt or credit problems. This is the culmination of extensive work by our policy teams globally and we have listened to and consulted with debt advice charities and other organisations whose users will benefit from this policy.”

Since the beginning of 2019, StepChange had reported 83 instances of misleading advertising to search engines, on top of the 46 reported in 2018. While these complaints were all upheld and the offending advertising removed, all too often the firms involved simply tweaked and reworked their advertising and were able to continue targeting people in debt. Under the new system, this should become much more difficult for them to do.

Over the past few months, StepChange has been at the forefront of a campaign to stamp out the impersonators. As BBC Radio 4 You and Yours and a number of national newspapers reported, people were actively misled – believing that they were dealing with a reputable debt charity when, in fact, their details were being harvested by lead generator firms receiving payments from commercial firms often seeking to sell insolvency debt solutions or other financial products. StepChange has gathered evidence from scores of people who have reported that they thought they were dealing with the charity as a result of inadvertently sharing their details with such firms.

StepChange Director of External Affairs Richard Lane said: “The rise in misleading advertisers targeting financially vulnerable people has resulted in numerous cases of people thinking they have been dealing with StepChange or other reputable debt charities when they have not. Action to restrict these advertising activities is very welcome.

“Now that Google has taken the first step, we would urge all digital platforms who accept advertising for debt services to consider their own approach. These impersonator firms tend to be highly opportunistic and adaptable and it would be very unfortunate if they were displaced from Google only to exploit other alternative channels instead.

“It’s still important for the financial and advertising regulators to take action, and for people needing help to be aware and to be vigilant about the risk of impersonators. Our Make Sure It’s Us webpage gives useful information and reassurance on how to do this.”