Proof Google makes it easy for crooks: We set up scam website for £95


Don’t let your money go to waste! Interest rates are at record lows, it’s definitely best to invest.’

So says the website best2invest.co.uk. For those with extra cash languishing in savings accounts, it’s sound advice, so far.

But it goes on. ‘We will find the top-performing bonds that show a return of up to 9.5 per cent per annum.’

Too easy: Money Mail was able to use Google to promote its brazenly fraudulent fake website for just £95.88

Too easy: Money Mail was able to use Google to promote its brazenly fraudulent fake website for just £95.88  

Think that sounds too good to be true? You’d be right. In reality, 1.35 per cent is currently the best rate going, according to Moneyfacts.

The website’s small print is also concerning. ‘We and our partners are not authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority,’ it says.

To seasoned observers, it is clearly a scam. But the truth is not so evident to unwitting victims who lost at least £135 million to investment fraud last year — many to websites just like this.

Indeed, the true cost of such scams is likely to be far higher, as so many victims are too ashamed to report them.

Nor, so it seems, is the ‘scam’ described above obvious to Google, which saw fit to advertise the site in its search results.

And it doesn’t even take a sophisticated scammer to dodge its rules. For best2invest is, in fact, a fake firm set up by Money Mail, notionally to flog ‘high returns on fixed-rate bonds’.

We paid Google just £95.88 to promote our website under search terms such as ‘secure investment’ and ‘Isa best buys’.

Extraordinarily, our advert was approved by the tech giant despite it being initially flagged as suspicious. In less than a week, the ad was viewed 3,539 times and generated 74 ‘clicks’.

To test how this might have translated into actual scam victims, we also set up an enquiries form so prospective customers could submit their details for more information on our products.

Including times it was accessed independently from the advert, this page was clicked through to 1,736 times.

Our form was defunct, so no details were compromised or stored, and absolutely no one was put at risk.

But had real scammers been behind it, they would have had carte blanche to bombard more than 1,700 potential victims with fraudulent and fake investment products.

Full of phoney ads

Google is reportedly raking in tens of millions of pounds a year by promoting fraudulent or unregulated investments on its search engine.

It operates a pay-per-click system that allows firms to compete for a prominent position on online searches.

But campaigners say up to 90 per cent of its ads for Isas and bonds could be scams.

Money Mail has also exposed dozens of other Google scam ads, including everything from copycat insurance, HMRC and DVLA websites to dodgy locksmiths.

Two weeks ago we told how online scams had spiralled out of control, with internet firms, police and banks failing to stop hundreds of millions of pounds being lost to fraudsters every year.

Last July, Google responded to criticism by introducing a 21-day verification process for businesses promoting financial products.

If advertisers fail to prove their legitimacy within this window, they will be given a seven-day notice period before the ad is paused.

Firms cannot restart their ads until verification is complete. Google updated this policy in December, allowing it to pause suspicious ads during the verification window.

But the City watchdog and campaigners including Which? have called on Google to verify all ads before they go live, because scammers can run riot within weeks.

Even though Google paused our advert after five days, following a warning from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), our results show thousands of victims could have been scammed during that time.

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Gareth Shaw, head of money at Which?, says: ‘People should be able to trust that the adverts they see online are legitimate.

‘However, this investigation exposes how fraudsters can target and exploit customers with fake content before it gets taken down.’

Crime pays: Google is reportedly raking in tens of millions of pounds a year by promoting fraudulent or unregulated investments on its search engine

Crime pays: Google is reportedly raking in tens of millions of pounds a year by promoting fraudulent or unregulated investments on its search engine

Dodging checks?

Fraudsters are increasingly using ‘bond comparison’ websites — such as best2invest — to sidestep Google’s checks.

These sites don’t have to be explicit about what they are selling; instead they ask customers to enter their details to pass on to ‘investment partners’.

In reality, customers’ details are handed over to fraudsters, who then have free rein to flog dodgy or fake investment products behind closed doors.

Bizarrely, our ad was initially rejected by Google because it said we were trying to circumvent its rules — but a day later it was found to be compliant.

Then Google raised concerns that our website contained malware (software designed to cause damage to a computer, server or network), and took two months to conclude that it didn’t.

The site eventually went live on February 22. Three days later, campaigner Mark Taber spotted our website and reported it to the FCA. 

Google paused the ad and started our 21-day verification period on February 27, after the FCA raised an alert and said our domain name was in breach of UK criminal law.

Google has not said why it took five days from when the ad went live for the 21-day verification window to begin — or why it approved our ad in the first place, despite it being initially flagged as suspicious.

In order for us to continue advertising, Google requested that we fill in a verification form, which includes questions about the business model and its licences. We chose not to complete the form and our ad has been suspended.

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But experts are concerned over how rigorous these checks are. Mr Taber says the same websites often reappear under a different domain name after they are taken down.

He adds: ‘If Google was finding out who is behind these websites and blocking them, they wouldn’t still be able to keep advertising time and time again.

‘Google could do so much more. It should be verifying that the ads are lawful and there is no excuse not to be [doing that].’

Legal duty

MPs and experts, including Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey, are calling for scams to be included in the Online Harms Bill before it passes through Parliament later this year.

This would mean Google and other tech firms would have a legal responsibility to prevent fraud on their platforms, including checking ads before promoting them.

Pensions minister Guy Opperman last week said Google could ‘literally fix this tomorrow’ by verifying advertisers before taking their money, and threatened new laws to compel it to vet companies if it refused to do so itself.

Google has announced plans to verify all advertisers on its platform, but this does not yet apply in the UK. A spokesman says the company removed 3.1 billion bad ads from its platform last year after putting more resources into tackling a rise in fraud.

He added that 123 million of these ads were for financial services scams similar to best2invest.

m.dilworth@dailymail.co.uk

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