Officials from National Trading Standards ("NTS"), the government organisation designed to protect consumers and safeguard businesses, have accused Google of benefiting from crime by permitting fraudsters to pay to place their websites at the top of search engines.
The net result is that consumers lose millions of pounds on websites that imitate official, legitimate ones, often fooling people into paying over the odds for government services such as passport or driving license renewals.
The sites are able to boost their position in the Google search rankings by paying to appear when phrases such as "passport renewal" are searched.
As these sites have grown in prominence, aided by their presence on Google, NTS has said it is willing to take action by prosecuting them but Google and other search engines must play their part to contain the problem. NTS called for search engines to "proactively identify and remove adverts placed by copycat websites". Google promised to crackdown on these sites in 2014 but it is clear but many still appear in both paid-for and general search results.
It appears that many of the websites are exploiting a loophole that allows them to continue to operate by claiming that they are offering an "extra service".
One website, which appears legitimate, offers ESTA visa waiver services for travel to the United States of America but charges £50 more than the regular cost. It claims to provide extra features such as "email confirmations" without justification or explanation as to why this costs an additional £50. As well as webpages, consumers using Google searches are being directed to premium-rate telephone numbers when they are actually want to contact government or charity lines. For example, the RSPCA complained to Google over a helpline it discovered that tricked people wanting to report animal abuse into paying an inflated rate.
Google reiterated that websites of this sort were breaking its rules and that it would take appropriate action.
This issue is part of an on-going wider discussion, in which governments are urging large technology companies to take more proactive steps to control and minimise business crime, fraud, and abuse on their websites. Governments are increasingly looking at legislation and regulations to put pressure on companies but it is clear that they would like more impetus and action to come from the organisations. On a related note, Twitter announced this week that it was designing a new "authentication and verification programme" and would be removing "verification" from accounts whose behaviour does not fall within Twitter's guidelines - including, amongst other things, those who promote hate. This was prompted by criticism that Twitter had given "verified" badges, which have since been removed, to accounts of individuals promoting far right views.