22 Sep 2021

MPs launch attack on Google and Facebook for failing to tackle online fraud

Economics Correspondent

MPs have launched a blistering attack on the social media giant Google for failing to tackle online fraud.

A member of the Treasury Select Committee accused Google of profiting from advertising fraud.

Google says it’s doing everything it can to stem the problems, but the banking industry has warned that online fraud has become a threat to national security.

In the final months of Indu Patel’s life, he was gripped with anxiety and guilt. He experienced feelings of shame that left him not wanting to go on after losing his life savings through a scam advertised on Google.

His daughter Poorvi Smith told Channel 4 News: “I think it destroyed him. He is such a proud man.

“He was full of life, full of vitality, and pretty much from that day (he) just didn’t want to socialise anymore, just withdrew from everything, didn’t eat, lost his appetite, just sat in his room all day, didn’t even want to see us. He didn’t even want to see his family, which is heartbreaking.”

Mr Patel lost £130,000 after clicking on a Google ad that led him to what looked like a famous American bank. He carried out checks on the bank, but the criminal gang behind the fraud had created an elaborate facade. And the fact it was advertised on Google reassured him it was legitimate.

Many people trust Google to “give them the right messages and to give them the right content” and “surely that trust has to be reciprocated,” Ms Smith added.

It’s stories like Mr Patel’s that have angered MPs who called in Google and other tech giants for an uncomfortable dressing down at the Treasury Select Committee.

At the meeting this week, Conservative MP Anthony Browne asked Amanda Storey, Google’s Director of Trust and Safety, whether the company would compensate their customers that are victims of fraud.

She responded saying they are working to make sure they are never in a position where a user needs compensation.

Asked if they have ever compensated anyone who has lost money from fraud through Google, she said “we have not”.

Mr Browne said in his questions to the platforms: “You profit from fraud, you profit from advertising fraud, and you don’t suffer any of the losses.”

And it’s the scale of fraud that’s so terrifying, up 30% this year alone with £754 million stolen in just the first six months. It’s been described by UK Finance, the banking industry’s trade association, as a national security threat.

Neena Bhati, head of campaigns at Which?, said: “Platforms are unfortunately not doing enough.

“They have some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, and yet they are not putting enough of an effort into preventing those scam adverts from making it onto their sites in the first place.

“And we have evidence that suggests that this is happening on an industrial scale.”

For Mr Patel’s family, the pain is still acute.

Ms Smith said: “At the hospital, the doctors did say to us, has he had a big trauma? Has he had a shock because he’s acting like a person in shock?

“He just said, ‘I don’t want to live anymore. I’ve messed up. I’ve let you all down. I don’t want to live’.”

She added: “I felt like I lost my dad six months before he actually died because his personality and his soul just completely changed. And that, to me was just devastating because he shouldn’t have been the one that was feeling guilty.”

Google told Channel 4 News the changes they brought in this month should prevent cases like Mr Patel’s happening again. They promised to vigorously enforce the new policy, but they have resisted MP’s calls for more regulation, which campaigners say is the only real tool for tackling online fraud.