ALMOST one in 10 people have fallen victim to online scam ads via social media sites or search engines as platforms fail to tackle a flood of bogus ads posted by fraudsters, new research has revealed.

Details have emerged as a service was launched by the national consumer advice service to protect Scots from scammers.

ScamWatch is a free tool that allows consumers to report suspected scams and suspicious activity, including online, telephone and doorstep scams.

The intelligence gathered by Advice Direct Scotland, which runs consumeradvice.scot in partnership with the Scottish Government, will then be used to assist Trading Standards Scotland and other authories to take enforcement action.

Over the last 12 months, Action Fraud, the UK’s national reporting centre for cybercrime, said that it has received 83,822 online shopping fraud reports, with reported losses reaching around £62.3 million over that period.

Consumer organisation Which? is calling for calling for the government to give tech giants greater legal responsibility for preventing scam content from appearing on their sites, after hundreds of people shared their often "distressing" stories of falling victim through loss of money or personal information.

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A purchase scam where a consumer is misled into paying in advance for goods that are never received or are not at all as described have become increasingly common on popular websites and platforms with criminals creating fake portals and documents that seem genuine to trick their victims, say Which?

With 43 million adult social media users in the UK, Which?’s research suggests that some 3.8 million people might have fallen victim to a scam from an advert that appeared on their feed.

In their survey of 2,000 it found that nine per cent of social media users had fallen victim to a scam ad on social media feeds.

It also revealed that six in 10 (64%) social media users and almost six in 10 (57%) search engine users said they were confident they could spot these scams. But previous Which? research has suggested this confidence is misplaced – which it said "could create a perfect breeding ground for scams".

When Which? separately asked for victims of social media purchase scams to get in touch, its researchers heard from more than 200 people in just 48 hours.

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One victim, Christine, ordered a CBD oil product advertised on Facebook that had been falsely 'endorsed' by Fern Britton and David Attenborough. She was promised a sample for £2.50, but £170 was later taken from her bank account.

She told Which? the money was “more than my weekly pension and I’m so upset. It happened weeks ago but I can’t stop thinking about it”. Christine is worried she faces a fight on her hands to get her money back because she did receive a sample, although she doesn’t think it is genuine CBD oil.

Adam French, consumer rights expert at Which?, said: “Our research suggests that online purchase scams are taking place on an industrial scale, with scam victims suffering significant financial and emotional harm when they are targeted by fraudsters.

“Despite being known for innovation, social media sites and search engines are lagging behind scammers, seemingly taking little responsibility for stopping misinformation and harmful content from reaching their users.

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“The government must step in and protect consumers by giving online platforms more legal responsibility to prevent scam content from appearing in the first place.”

The coronavirus pandemic has seen a sharp rise in activity by scammers in Scotland with fraud 72 per cent higher in September than last year, according to the most recent official data.

In September, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon highlighted that scammers were trying to trick Scots into paying for Covid contact tracing, while local councils have reported a number of doorstep scams relating to outdoor work in recent months.

Businesses in Scotland have also reported several cyber scams, including fraudsters pretending to be from HMRC to access people’s bank details.

The new ScamWatch tool, launched as part of National Consumer Week 2020, allows people and businesses to enter basic information on an online form about the scam, and they can choose to remain anonymous if they wish.

Andrew Bartlett, chief executive of Advice Direct Scotland, said: “Scams impact people in Scotland every day, sometimes costing them thousands of pounds.

“Reporting a scam to us via the new ScamWatch tool will help us to gather intelligence to protect people across the country.

“By sharing the information with enforcement agencies, together we can shut out the scammers.

“The National Consumer Week campaign advises people to remain vigilant, check the source of engagement, and avoid making decisions in the moment.

“But there is nothing to be ashamed of if a scammer catches you out, and our advisers are available to offer free, practical and impartial advice on what to do next.”

A Facebook company spokesman said: “There’s no place for fraudulent or inauthentic behaviour on Facebook and we have removed the pages reported to us by Which?. We invest in people and technology to remove fraud from our platforms, and we urge people to report any suspicious posts to us. We have donated £3 million to Citizens Advice to deliver a UK Scam Action Programme to raise awareness and help victims, and in partnership with the ASA we’ve launched an industry-wide UK Scam Ad Alert system.”