The consumer group Which? has called on Google to do more to tackle scam adverts after finding a host of dubious firms appearing at the top of Google searches.
Having investigated the tech giant’s pay-per-click service, which allows businesses to buy prominent spots on search results, Which? said fake adverts for debt charities, car insurers and investment firms were regularly appearing on the site.
Google searches for saving terms, such as “top Isa”, “best bonds” and “best fixed rate bonds”, were topped by dubious ads for “investment finder” services, it said.
One victim lost £160,000 to scammers after clicking on an ad that appeared to be for an Aviva investment scheme.
Fraudsters have also targeted vulnerable consumers seeking debt help, with so-called “lead generator” ads imitating leading debt charities, including StepChange.
Which? found that searches for “Admiral car insurance claims number”, “NFU phone number” and “Aviva claims department” were all topped by adverts for dubious claims handling firms.
Under new rules, advertisers promoting financial services or products now have to submit documentation to verify their legal identities and business operations. But these advertisers have 21 days to submit documentation and their ads will remain live during this time.
Jenny Ross, the Which? money editor, said: “People should be able to trust that the adverts they see on Google are legitimate. However, our investigation has revealed the various ways fraudsters have hijacked the search engine’s systems to target and exploit victims.
“Despite introducing new measures to vet those advertising financial products or services, we are calling for Google to remove this delay for advertisers in high-risk industries. It should also introduce clear and transparent labels for ads listed by unverified advertisers.”
A Google spokesperson said: “Protecting users from ad scams and fraud is a key priority. To more effectively prevent predatory financial ads in the UK, we now require certain advertisers promoting financial products or services to complete our business operations verification programme. This will allow us to gain more information about the advertisers’ identity, business model and relationships with third parties so users can trust the ads they’re seeing.
“This policy update follows months of engagement with and input from the FCA to ensure we’re effectively addressing the bad actors responsible for predatory financial ads.”