Martin Lewis calls for publishers to act over fake news ads

Jim Waterson Media editor

Martin Lewis has said publishers should take more responsibility for adverts on their sites after prominent outlets ran promotions announcing his death featuring a mock-up of his bloodied face.

The adverts featuring Lewis, who is behind the website moneysavingexpert, presented themselves as breaking news alerts and were badged with the logos of mainstream news outlets such as the Mirror and the London Evening Standard to add credibility.

In recent days they have appeared in prominent positions on the homepage of Mail Online, linking to scams including opportunities to buy bitcoin or referrals to other online shopping sites.

They have also been spotted on stories published by the Guardian and the Independent.

A spokesperson for Guardian Media Group said the ad appeared programmatically on theguardian.com on 17 February through Google AdX. “Immediate action was taken and it was blocked,” they said.

Lewis told the Guardian that reports of his early demise were false but that he was exasperated that both publishers and highly profitable advertising companies such as Google were allowing such material to slip through their system without taking responsibility.

“Newspaper publishers need to take responsibility for what is on their sites,” said Lewis. “The argument is that they are using an ad-serving platform that uses those ads. Well, if the platform repeatedly serves scam ads that target vulnerable people then they need to ask why they’re using [Google’s] AdSense.

“These ads are designed by a human being who deliberately and maliciously has made up that I’ve either been beaten up or killed, and that is particularly uncomfortable.”

Related: The Money Saving Expert: how Martin Lewis became the most trusted man in Britain

Lewis, who does not endorse any products or do any advertising, is a target for spammers due to his incredibly high trust ratings among the British public on financial matters. His office regularly deals with people who have been duped out of their savings by online scammers falsely claiming their products have been endorsed by Lewis.

Mail Online said the responsibility lay with Google allowing the advert into its programmatic advertising system, saying the tech company’s vetting system appears to have been duped: “The ad flips between redirecting to a legitimate Express news page and a fake bitcoin story – falsely branded as the Mirror – which might explain how a malicious advertiser was able to mask itself as a legitimate brand.”

Google said the adverts were placed through one of its programmatic products, which allows third parties to place ads on publishers’ websites in real time. A spokesman said: “We require all ads and partners on the exchange to abide by our policies; and we’ve suspended the scammers’ accounts. We remain committed to fighting scammers working to evade our systems and are constantly updating our technology to stop new threats as they emerge.”

Lewis, who last year dropped his lawsuit against Facebook over its repeated failure to prevent scam adverts using his name and image, after the company agreed to donate £3m to set up an anti-scam project, said he was exasperated with companies passing the buck for allowing images of his face to be used to sell scam products.

He added: “This is exactly the problem they had with Facebook. They take it down but then another comes up – why am I responsible for policing this?

“I know this is an advertising platform but publishers need to take responsibility for what they publish, including what they’re paid to publish.”

He acknowledged there would always be errors, such as when the Guardian in 2018 ran a programmatic advert featuring him next to a story about his battle on adverts featuring his face.

But he suggested the likes of Google were prioritising profit margins over reducing spam, saying: “One of the problems with these companies is they talk about the difficulty of technologically policing adverts. My answer is that if you can’t police it technologically, have someone vet it. It may cost billions but that’s what being a responsible ethical company involves.”

Lewis called on the government to force publishers to introduce a standardised method to report scam adverts in the forthcoming online harms legislation

“Westminster is very focused on fake news and the impact on democracy – but what it is nowhere near as passionate about is the impact of scams and these types of adverts on vulnerable people. I’ve met people who’ve had their lives destroyed by these adverts.

“When I met a senior member of the government about this, their response was: ‘If you can sue more of them that would help as we can’t do much’.”

• This article was amended on 28 February to reflect new information that the adverts featuring Lewis had also appeared on the Guardian’s website.