Google ads are a prime target for online investment scams and there’s not much that financial authorities can do about it. These untrustworthy and outright scam adverts span much of the financial services sector, with many posing as legitimate charities and financial firms to trick victims out of money or personal details.

Before we get into this, let’s look at how Google search works because this is the means by which the fake ads lure victims,

How does Google search work?
  • With an estimated 85-90% of the global search engine market share, Google influences billions of our buying decisions every year.
  • You might assume that the results considered most authentic would always appear at the top of your search. Often they don’t.
  • Advertisers can pay Google to circumvent some of its complex algorithm search rules to appear at the top of Google searches. This option is used legitimately by many law-abiding advertisers.
  • But it is also routinely exploited by scammers and rogue operators offering fraudulent financial services.
  • It is this ability to place rogue ads in prominent places on the screen that hooks victims who naturally assume the ad is legitimate and not a scam.
Verifying advertisers

Google has made millions from fraudulent online ads and in some senses is party to the frauds because until very recently it wasn’t checking the legitimacy of the advertisers. This allowed the fraudsters a free run in placing their phony ads.

However, last year Google acknowledged the problem and is planning to expand its programme of advertiser verification on its platform to weed out fraud. It has started by verifying advertisers in phases, initially in the US with plans to expand the programme globally. That said, it’s a huge task and is going to take years to complete and in the meantime there are still plenty of fake ads out there.

Until Google puts the nail in the coffin of rogue advertisers what sort of fraudulent ads should you look out for?
  • Savings products such as such as ‘best cash Isa’
  • Bank imposters offering products such as top Isa’, ‘best bonds’ and ‘best fixed rate bonds’
  • Fraudsters impersonating legitimate investment companies. These frauds will typically use the name of a genuine employee who also has a LinkedIn profile so on the surface the ad appears genuine.
  • Fake claims management companies that appear to be genuine insurers.
  • ‘Lead generator’ ads imitating leading debt charities. They encourage enquirers to submit personal details that are then sold to Insolvency Practitioners. Victims are then contacted and pushed to take often-unsuitable Individual Voluntary Agreements (IVAs) which are legally binding debt repayment plans.
To protect against these and similar scams the first port of call should be the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).

In the UK, a firm must be authorised and regulated by the FCA to operate most financial services activities. The FCA has a financial services register which allows you to search for the company in question to establish its legitimacy or whether it is a fraudulent operation.

It also has a warning list that takes you through a number of steps to establish the credibility of potential investment ‘opportunities’ as well as a wealth of information and advice about investment, pension and online trading scams.

Beyond due diligence background checks there are several other indicators that should raise red flags if you are approached or are already engaged with a company. These are:
  • Companies contact you out of the blue. This could be through a cold call, text, message on social media, email or even brochure in the mail.
  • They pressure you into making a rushed decision. This could be with a limited time offer, bonus or discount if you sign up before a deadline.
  • It seems too good to be true. The old saying rings true, if they downplay the risks but the investment is high return, it could be an investment scam.
  • They ask you to keep the investment quiet. The scammer might tell you the investment opportunity is just for you and ask you not to tell anyone.
The most difficult scams to detect are those in which fraudsters run online ads claiming to be an existing company and use a contact name that is the same as an employee in the real company.

If you do a background check everything stacks up, the company exists, and so does the employee who often has a profile on LinkedIn, the social network for professionals of all stripes.

The fraudsters are simply claiming to be the real thing by impersonating the real thing. The fact that their ad appears at the top of a Google search gives them an apparent veneer of legitimacy, but they have paid Google to ensure top ranking in searches.

These can be extremely difficult frauds to detect and victims have initially lost £100,000 plus. Many have eventually been reimbursed by financial authorities because they were genuine victims, but who needs the headaches and sleepless nights.
  • In these cases if somebody repeatedly emails or calls you and tries to keep you online they are trying to pressure you into making a rushed decision which is in itself a red flag.
  • If you have any doubts at all contact the FCA and see if they have any knowledge of scams in which the company is named.
  • Also check the company by going to its website and contacting someone else in the firm who is able to confirm or deny that the person you have been speaking to is indeed genuine and engaged on your behalf.