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Treasury and pension committees write to PM over online scam ads

Treasury and pension committees write to PM over online scam ads

The Treasury and Work and Pensions committees have written to the prime minister urging him to reconsider including paid-for online advertisements in the government's Online Safety bill.

In the letter, published today (July 23) and sent on Wednesday (July 21), they argued legislating against fraud committed through paid-for advertisement had "strong cross party support” and that not doing so would result in "potentially large financial losses to the public”.

The committees demanded answers from Johnson on why the government’s policy has so far “been to legislate against user-generated fraud but not fraud committed through paid-for advertisements”.

In May, the government announced measures to tackle some online scams in its Online Safety bill but stopped short of including fraud via advertising, emails or cloned websites.

After initial criticisms of the bill’s coverage, Johnson said at the Liaison Committee on July 7 he was “more than happy to look at it” if bodies felt it was “in some way inadequate”.

Conservative MP for Central Devon and chairman of the Treasury committee, Mel Stride, called the government’s inaction so far “disappointing”.

“Without decisive action, innocent consumers will continue to be defrauded on a large scale,” he said.

After confirming ads would not feature in the bill the government said they were due to be addressed separately by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DMCS) with a consultation due later this year.

The committees pointed out, however, that this separate work began with a Call for Evidence two years ago, “but has not yet produced  anything”. 

They added: “There is as yet no timetable for the consultation later this year leading to change in the law. In the meantime, fraudulent online adverts will continue to do immense harm.”

The letter adds pressure to a call made by a coalition of consumer groups, charities and financial services industry bodies earlier this week for paid-for advertisements to be brought within scope of the Online Safety bill.

Until recently, big tech behemoths such as Google had continued to avoid screening financial adverts due to a loophole in EU law.

But in recent weeks the likes of Google made changes voluntarily. From August onwards, Google will require financial services advertisers on its platforms to show they are authorised by the FCA or qualify for one of its limited exemptions.

Earlier this month, social media platform TikTok went as far as to ban the promotion of various financial services products including investments and cryptocurrency.

In their letter, the committees asked Johnson how the drafted Online Safety bill will tackle financial fraud on social media and dating apps. They have requested a response from the prime minister by August 4.

ruby.hinchliffe@ft.com