Of the many frauds that permeate the online world fake financial services ads promising high returns but only deliver cons, scams and suffering are rife. According to UK Finance, the collective voice for the banking and finance industry, investment scams spiked by 84% in the first half of 2021 and total losses almost doubled from £55.2 million in the first half of 2020 to £107.7 million, largely driven by fraudulent advertising on search engines and social media.

The fake ads appear at the top of the page when you carry out a search on the search engine you use. For instance if you search for ‘compare best savings rates’ a series of ads will appear that have headers such as:
  • Compare Best Savings Accounts – Best Savings Account Rates
  • Top 10 Best Savings Accounts – Best Savings Account Rates
  • Best Savings Interest Rates – Beat the Low High Street Rates
  • Better than savings accounts – Best fixed rate bonds
In fact, all of these headers were from fake ads that appeared when using Microsoft’s Bing search engine. The scammers who placed these ads paid Microsoft to ensure their details appeared at the top of search results.

Mark Taber, an accountant and campaigner against fraud, kept his eye on both Google and Bing search engines and found that Bing appears to be making very little effort to stop rogue firms from taking out ads.

Under pressure

Under pressure from consumer groups and the financial regulator, Google introduced stricter requirements for firms promoting financial services in the UK, with enforcement taking effect from 6 September 2021.

Since then fake financial services ads on the Google search engine have appeared to largely disappear. However, it’s another story when it comes to Bing, according to Mark Taber, who says it’s easy to come across find fake financial services ads.

Despite both Google and Microsoft saying they are taking steps to root out rogue financial ads, they are still slipping through.

How can you tell the difference between a con and the real thing?

A good place to start is the Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) warning list. If a company’s name appears that you’re not sure about you can search for it with the FCA search tool. Another option is to use the FCA’s investment scam checker.

However, the list is not infallible so it’s a good idea to retain a degree of reserve even if a company name doesn’t appear on the warning list. You need to establish beyond certainty that the company is genuine.

A survey carried out by consumer watchdog at the beginning of this year revealed the impact of fraud goes beyond the actual theft. Survey respondents reported a negative impact on their mental health, stress in general, anxiety regarding their finances and physical health. This is hardly surprising given that when a victim transfers money to a criminal, they can lose everything.

Steps to protect yourself
  • Check the Financial Services Register. This will help you to see if you’re dealing with a genuine firm. Check the firm’s listed offerings match the service you’re being offered and only use the contact details listed on the register, not the ones you’re given in an ad, or on the phone. If there are no contact details on the register or the firm claims they’re out of date, call the FCA on 0800 111 6768.
  • Be careful with your personal details. Avoid entering contact details on unknown sites, particularly those advertising on search engines and social media, as you risk being targeted with endless scams.
  • Think about using identity protection, a feature of BullGuard Premium Protection. It alerts your sensitive financial information, such as payment card details, appear on hacker forums and dark web sites that trade in stolen information.