The social media giant Meta is facing growing pressure from MPs, consumer groups and the UK banking sector over its failure to prevent a “tsunami” of fraud on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, where Britons are losing “life-changing” sums every day.
It comes as a Guardian investigation reveals the human stories behind scams that originate on Meta’s platforms, with a nationwide estimate released this week predicting the tech firm’s failure to stamp out fraud will cost UK households £250m during 2023.
With someone in the UK said to fall victim to a purchase scam starting on either Facebook or Instagram every seven minutes, the Guardian asked people who had been defrauded on these sites as well as its WhatsApp platform to get in touch.
One Facebook user told us she was defrauded of her life savings and got pulled into debt, losing a total of £70,000, after being duped by an investment scam. While some people lost large amounts of money, a stream of unsuspecting online shoppers reported being conned out of smaller amounts when they placed orders with bogus online shops advertised on Facebook and Instagram.
Among the most upsetting experiences shared were those of victims of the WhatsApp “Hi Mum” impersonation scam, where fraudsters impersonate family members to get them to send large sums of money.
Valerie, 73, one of the many victims, handed over £2,000 to someone pretending to be her son, a small business owner who had borrowed money in the past. Ill with long Covid, she said she would “never get over” the humiliation of being caught out this way.
Earlier this week, TSB said it thought scams originating on Meta platforms could account for up to £250m of losses to UK households in 2023. The bank says there were huge fraud spikes originating from Meta-owned sites and apps in 2022, which were responsible for 80% of the cases it dealt with.
Many victims told us they had found it hard to report scams to Meta or that when they did they received an automated response – or no reply at all.
The shadow digital, culture, media and sport secretary, Lucy Powell, said social media bosses had been let “off the hook for too long”.
“Despite the eye-watering scale of scams online, the government had to be dragged into including fraud and scams in the online safety bill, only to delay and water it down at the last minute,” she said.
“It’s time for them to stop bowing to vested interests, and stand up for consumers and victims.”
The online safety bill going through parliament will require tech and social media platforms to remove scam adverts, while the government’s new anti-fraud measures include asking tech firms to make it easier to report fraud and permitting banks to delay suspicious payments. But there are no provisions for tech platforms to compensate customers for scams.
Robin Bulloch, the TSB chief executive, said he was “deeply concerned” by the high levels of fraud on Meta’s sites. He said: “As the only bank with a fraud refund guarantee, we have unrivalled insight on this issue and it is tragic to see UK households lose life-changing sums every day due to insufficient protection on Meta platforms.”
With banks now on the hook for a huge refund bill, TSB, Barclays, Nationwide and Starling Bank are among those arguing that the $700bn California tech giant should have to make a financial contribution to these costs. Meta rakes in huge sums from advertising, with the accounts for Facebook’s UK operations alone showing gross income from advertisers soared by more than 37% in 2022 to £3.3bn.
Matt Hammerstein, the chief executive of Barclays UK, echoed the dire situation, stating the country was “suffering an epidemic of scams”, with its data showing 77% take place on tech platforms, including social media sites and online marketplaces.
“It is in the interest of everyone that tech companies now join this fight in earnest, to prevent the unchecked growth of what is now the most common crime in the UK, costing the economy billions each year,” he said. “If they are unwilling to act quickly enough on a voluntary basis, tech companies may need a financial incentive to act, so should then be required to contribute towards the reimbursement of victims based on a ‘polluter pays’ principle.”
Starling Bank described Facebook as the “single biggest enabler of fraud” suffered by its customers, followed by Instagram. It withdrew all paid ads from Meta platforms in December 2021 in protest at its failure to tackle this problem.
“Government measures do not go far enough and we are disappointed that the responsibility of reimbursing customers falls only on banks, while the social media platforms, where the fraud originated, are let off the hook,” it said in a statement. “These platforms, including Meta, profit from crime and yet remain beyond the reach of law.”
The consumer group Which? said its own research found misleading and potentially fraudulent investment adverts were reaching Facebook and Instagram users. Rocio Concha, the director of policy and advocacy at Which?, said Meta and other social media firms needed “to step up and take responsibility for stopping scams”.
To win the fight against fraud, Concha said it was crucial that the online safety bill included the “strongest possible protections for consumers and passed into law without further delays. This will give Ofcom the ability to issue fines against social media firms that fail to prevent fraudsters targeting innocent people through their platforms.”
Concha said banks should not be let off the hook for reimbursing fraud victims. “They facilitate scams by transferring funds to fraudsters and then often compound the devastating financial and emotional impact victims experience by treating them like a guilty party and refusing to reimburse them. It’s vital that the financial services and markets bill, which will pave the way for new rules that require the overwhelming majority of fraud victims to be reimbursed by their bank or payment provider, becomes law as soon as possible.”
When asked about scams, Meta said fraud was an industry-wide issue, with scammers using increasingly sophisticated methods. “We don’t want anyone to fall victim which is why our platforms have systems to block scams, financial services advertisers now have to be authorised and we run consumer awareness campaigns on how to spot fraudulent behaviour,” Meta said in a statement.
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