Tech giants defend moves to tackle scammers

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Tech giants have defended their policies on helping UK customers to avoid falling victim to fraudsters in disclosures to a committee of MPs, amid concern over a surge in scams.

Google, Facebook, Amazon and eBay wrote in response to a request from Mel Stride, chair of the Treasury select committee, outlining measures to counter the blight of online fraud.

The committee had asked the tech groups how much they had taken in advertising payments from UK public bodies including the Financial Conduct Authority for advertising to warn the public of the risk of scams, and any compensation they had offered those bodies for the costs of advertising.

Tech groups have come under greater scrutiny in the fight against online fraud as the incidence of scams has soared in the pandemic.

“With cases of fraud rising rapidly, it’s clear that further action is needed to protect consumers online,” said Stride, a Conservative MP. “As a committee, we’re calling for online technology companies to stop taking advertising pounds from these fraudsters.”

UK Finance, a trade body for banks, said last month that criminals were exploiting weaknesses outside banks’ control to trick customers into making payments directly to them.

It reported a 71 per cent rise in the first half of 2021 in so-called “authorised push payment fraud”, where criminals trick people into handing over personal details and passwords, often working through social media posts and online advertisements leading to fake websites.

In letters disclosed on Friday, Google said it had offered to provide $3m worth of advertising credits to the Financial Conduct Authority to help raise awareness about the risk of scams, and an additional $2m in ad credits for specific campaigns to combat scams.

Facebook, the social media group, said it had pledged to support an anti-fraud campaign run by UK Finance. It said no UK public sector body aside from the FCA had paid for advertising on the platform.

The company also said that it was “exploring additional vetting of financial services advertisers in the UK” and that it was communicating with the FCA on the issue.

Amazon said that between January 2020 and September 2021, it responded to claims in the UK for more than 190,000 customers, with over $2m paid out as a result. It removed 20,000 product reviews after an FT investigation last September found they had come from just seven of the top 10 UK reviewers.

Auction site eBay said that the average payout under its money back guarantee, when items are not received or are significantly different to their description, was $13.10.

The tech industry has also been involved with the Online Fraud Steering Group, formed in April 2021 by tech industry group TechUK (which includes all four companies as members), UK Finance and the National Economic Crime Centre, a group created by the Home Office in 2018.

In May, draft legislation for the online safety bill, which covers a wide variety of “online harms”, proposed giving media regulator Ofcom the ability to fine companies up to £18m or 10 per cent of annual global turnover if they failed to clamp down on harmful content including investment and romance scams.

The growing threat of legislative pressure led to the formation of Stop Scams UK, an alliance of big banks and telecoms companies launched in April. Of the four companies, only Google is currently a member, although eBay was the first to say it was open to joining.

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