Google is still making thousands of pounds from unregulated advertisers mimicking legitimate charities and offering to write off people’s debts, nearly a year on from introducing new guidelines which it said would help ‘stamp out’ the practice.
Charities and registered insolvency practitioners say the advertising giant ‘ignored complaints’ about misleading adverts and often took over a week to take down copycat adverts.
It comes as the Financial Conduct Authority has blacklisted a ‘faker’s dozen’ of 13 bogus and unregulated debt advice websites since April, 11 of which impersonated either StepChange Debt Charity or National Debtline.
‘National Debt Helpline’ was placed on the FCA’s blacklist of unauthorised firms in July. It has no connection with the charity National Debtline
People being referred for potentially wrong debt solutions on commission is particularly concerning when more households may have found themselves in financial distress as a result of coronavirus.
It is is likely as the furlough scheme ends, payment holidays and fee-free overdrafts come to an end and companies make more redundancies, the problem could grow.
Some 17 per cent of people who came to StepChange in July were in debt due to losing their job, while it saw increased numbers of visitors to the section of its website which dealt with redundancy and debt.
The charity’s Sue Anderson told This is Money: ‘It’s wrong and immoral that financially vulnerable people are being preyed upon in such a cynical way, especially at a time when more people are facing financial difficulty due to coronavirus.
‘We need to see regulators, search engines and social media platforms all working energetically to help prevent impersonator adverts from appearing in the first place, as well as getting them removed and the perpetrators pursued when they do slip through.’
Google makes thousands of pounds from copycat ads
Over the last week This is Money has discovered a number of copycat advertisers appearing at the top of Google when searching for terms like ‘StepChange’ and ‘debt advice’, on top of the countless examples we have reported since we warned about debt solutions being marketed as life hacks last year.
These websites use names like ‘Steps4Change’ and ‘Step into Change’, directly impersonating charities.
However, at the bottom of their sites they disclose they are lead generators which receive commission payments in return for referring people in potentially vulnerable situations to debt solution providers.
There are no contact details on these sites, and it is often impossible to work out who is behind them, or where consumers are referred.
Searches for ‘debt advice’ and the debt charity StepChange frequently return results for advertisers mimicking legitimate debt charities
Jane Tully, director of external affairs at the Money Advice Trust, which runs the charity National Debtline, said: ‘We see on a regular basis websites and online adverts that make misleading claims about debt write-offs and that impersonate free debt advice charities.
‘These ads direct people to sites offering IVAs that can lead people in financial difficulty down a route unsuitable for their circumstances, causing further financial harm down the line.
‘While we have welcomed the steps taken to date by regulators and by Google to combat the impersonation of debt charities by these firms, the continued proliferation of misleading adverts online makes it clear that more action is needed to limit the potential harm to people struggling with problem debt.’
The lead generation website ‘Step into Change’ has spent £17,500 on Google advertising since July to appear when those in need of advice search for the debt charity StepChange
Analytics provided to This is Money courtesy of the marketing platform SEMrush estimated that ‘Step into Change’ had spent £17,500 on desktop and mobile adverts which had been on Google since the end of July.
Earlier this year, a website called ‘stepchanging .org.uk’ spent an estimated £20,000 on Google advertising between the start of April and mid-May.
The website was placed on the Financial Conduct Authority’s blacklist of unauthorised firms at the end of the month.
StepChange told This is Money it had reported the lead generator ‘Steps4Change’ for infringing its trademark
Adverts for the similarly named ‘stepchanging .co.uk’ also appeared on Google throughout June, although the website has since been taken down.
While This is Money has previously found accredited insolvency practitioners, the only people able to administer debt solutions like individual voluntary arrangements, do advertise on Google, third-party lead generators are a different story.
The six largest providers of IVAs are banned from receiving customers from these lead generators under rules introduced by the Insolvency Practitioners’ Association, while Google claimed last year that it would clamp down on unregulated debt advertising.
In October it said only regulated insolvency practitioners and FCA-authorised companies would be able to advertise with it.
Google’s Matthew Levine said the move would ‘provide further protections for vulnerable users who come to Google for information on how to remedy their debt or credit problems’.
Since July it has required those advertising financial services to provide information about their business model and the services they offer within 21 days of being contacted by the search engine, and said advertisers which attempted to trick its review processes may be suspended.
|Business name||Date blacklisted||Is its website still running?|
|Step Change Contact Number||8 July||No|
|National Debtlines||12 June||Yes|
|Step Debt Free||2 June||No|
|Step Clear From Debts||28 May||No|
|Step Changing||28 May||No|
|Step Debt Line||15 May||No|
|Step Debt Support/National Direct Service||15 May||Yes|
|Step Clear to Change||15 May||No|
|D£bt Solutions||30 April||No|
|Debt Struggles||9 April||No|
|Source: Financial Conduct Authority|
However, although advertisers must enter an insolvency practitioner number or FCA reference number if they want to advertise, it was suggested to This is Money that little pre-approval took place and that it would be easy to copy real details when purchasing adverts.
Kristiana Georgieva, from Become Debt Free, a Leeds-based insolvency practitioner, said: ‘To advertise for debt services, an insolvency practitioner license is required, so Google whitelists the website.
‘This means that there is either an insolvency practitioner involved in those misleading ads or that these companies have lied using someone else’s license.’
Since last October Google has required advertisers to either be accredited by the Financial Conduct Authority or be a licensed insolvency practitioner in order to market debt solutions. But This is Money has been told the search engine was not policing its own rules properly
Andrew Bowers, the firm’s managing director and a registered insolvency practitioner, said the search engine was ‘clearly not policing their certification policy properly.’
He added: ‘I think it would be easy for someone to provide Google with a real name and number without the real practitioner knowing on the application form.
‘I think Google only check the name, number and address of the insolvency practitioner provided matches the details listed on the Insolvency Service website.’
The IPA earlier this year warned it has ‘become aware of recent cases where practitioners’ names have been used to create copycat websites without any consent’ and that names had also been ‘unlawfully added to websites to try and get around Google’s advertising restriction on lead generators’.
Waiting a week for adverts to be removed from Google
As well as approving the copycat adverts in the first place and pocketing thousands of pounds in the process from impersonators and unregulated lead generators, it was alleged Google often failed to act quickly when alerted to these adverts.
The Financial Conduct Authority reports firms placed on its blacklist to Google so it can take down their adverts, while StepChange had reported 56 cases to the search engine this year where advertisers had directly infringed its trademarks, as seen in many of the cases of blacklisted websites.
While this is down from the 100 reported in 2019, it often took Google over a week to act on these requests.
Ms Georgieva added: ‘We have submitted multiple complaints via Google’s complaints form and have spoken to them over the phone.
‘Once a complaint form is submitted, nothing happens, and the impersonators seem to be unstoppable. They have spent thousands on adverts and Google seems to be happy with that.’
Debt charities have previously described the situation as akin to a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, as new adverts pop up as soon as previous ones disappear or are taken down.
Sue Anderson said: ‘In the meantime, anyone looking for debt advice should go direct to the correct website.’
This is Money asked Google why it still accepted adverts from unregulated lead generators close to a year on from the StepChange agreement and why advertisers were allowed to impersonate legitimate debt charities, and raised the allegations that it ignored complaints and took over a week to take down misleading adverts.
It said in a statement: ‘When users come to Google looking for advice or solutions for their problems we want to ensure that the information surfaced to them in ads leads to honest players and we take this responsibility seriously.
‘When we become aware of ads that violate our policies, we take action. We do not allow ads for credit repair services and ads for debt settlement or debt management services in the UK are only allowed to run if certified by Google.’
Where can you go for advice?
With third-party lead generators and insolvency practitioners marketing debt solutions on Google, people in financial difficulty may wonder where they should turn to instead.
The best way to avoid falling down the rabbit hole is to find a website directly.
The Government’s Money Advice Service is an arm’s length service which provides advice to those who may be in trouble.
And other charities available to offer guidance and help to those in need include Citizens Advice, StepChange Debt Charity and the Money Advice Trust, which runs National Debtline and Business Debtline.