The Online Safety Bill aims to stamp out scams by holding tech giants to account – but does it go far enough?

The Government has announced details of its revised Online Safety Bill, calling it ‘a milestone in the fight for a new digital age’.

The bill, which seeks to protect users from online harms, now includes legislation to eliminate scam adverts in search results and on social media platforms.

Reports of phishing/smishing attacks, fake websites and impersonation scams skyrocketed during the pandemic as fraudsters exploited the public’s increased web activity and reliance on online shopping platforms.

Scams are everywhere – have you been conned?

Changing with the times

Digital secretary Nadine Dorries said: “We want to protect people from online scams and have heard the calls to strengthen our new internet safety laws. These changes to the upcoming Online Safety bill will help stop fraudsters conning people out of their hard-earned cash using fake online adverts.

“As technology revolutionises more and more of our lives the law must keep up. Today we are also announcing a review of the wider rules around online advertising to make sure industry practices are accountable, transparent and ethical – so people can trust what they see advertised and know fact from fiction.”

The OSB places a ‘duty of care’ on social media platforms, search engines and other websites to protect users from malicious or fraudulent content.

The regulator Ofcom will have the power to fine tech companies up to ten per cent of their annual global turnover should they fail to comply with the law, in addition to blocking users’ access to the sites in question.

Ofcom will also be able to enter companies’ premises to access data and equipment, request interviews with company employees and require companies to undergo an external assessment of how they’re keeping users safe.

UK Fraud: The Facts

  • Fraud is now the UK’s most common crime, accounting for a whopping 39% of offences.
  • Between November 2020 and December 2021, victims reported 448,838 incidents to Action Fraud for losses of more than £1.9bn.
  • Over 10.5 million suspicious emails have been reported to the Government’s National Cyber Security Centre since the Suspicious Email Reporting Service was launched almost two years ago.
  • The most common type of scam was Authorised Push Payment fraud (APP), which is when scammers trick victims into transferring money to them by posing as legitimate payees.

‘It Happened to Me’

Ana Sofia, a nurse from Luton, said: “My husband bought a car part from a website, everything looked legit. He even called the number and someone answered and spoke with him… but the part never came! The company does not exist.

“We spoke to the police, and they said to report it to the fraud line. We did, and so far nothing. We couldn’t even ask the bank to retrieve the money sent or anything like that! It was £700.”

Under the new law, tech companies will be required to put in place proportionate systems and processes to prevent the risk of users encountering fraudulent adverts and websites.

But this will do little to reassure victims of online hacking, of which there were almost 14,000 cases in 2021 alone.

Steffani Benton-Martyn, a music teacher from Truro, said: “I once had my PayPal hacked and they tried charging over £100 of Adidas to my credit card!”

Even secure payment apps like Paypal and ApplePay are not immune to hackers. Skilled fraudsters can exploit vulnerabilities in the software, so it’s important to install updates regularly to maximise your protection.

‘It’s now up to the government and regulators to get it right’

The inclusion of protections from fraudulent advertising in the bill has been met with widespread approval – but there remain some concerns.

Which? money editor Jenny Ross said: “The government’s decision to include paid-for scam adverts in the Online Safety Bill, along with promises to make reimbursement mandatory for bank transfer scam victims, was a huge step in the right direction, but it’s now up to the government and regulators to get it right.

“We will be checking carefully that the Online Safety Bill goes far enough in protecting consumers from fake and fraudulent adverts, and it’s vital that the government swiftly introduces the right legislation for bank transfer fraud that will ensure victims get fair and consistent treatment.”

Meanwhile, the vagueness of the definition of ‘online harm’ has led some commentators to express concern over undue censorship. Dorries herself admits she “has to walk a very tight tightrope” between freedom of expression and protection from harm.

Protect Yourself

When it comes to staying safe online, the best defences are a healthy scepticism and a strong firewall.

If you see a so-called ‘miracle’ product which contains a long list of ingredients you don’t recognise, or you see an item advertised cheaper than anywhere else, think before you click the ‘buy now’ button. Similarly, if you’re offered free advice or a huge return on an investment, unfortunately it’s probably a scam.

Most email services have a spam-filtering system which will root out the majority of fake ads, but scammers are getting increasingly sophisticated in their methods and some can still slip through the cracks.

If you’re still concerned about cyber attacks, here are some handy tips to help you avoid becoming a victim.

One of the best resources for online safety is The Little Book of Big Scams, in association with the Metropolitan Police. A comprehensive guide to fraud prevention, it explains some of the most common scams and how to avoid them.

If you do fall foul of cyber criminals, you can report it to Action Fraud here or call them on 0300 123 2040 between 8am and 8pm, Monday to Friday.