How easy is it to find stolen credit card details, drugs and weapons online?

Sep 21st '23

Google Search and Bing are linking in their top 20 search results to sites that claim to supply stolen credit card details, drugs and weapons, according to new research published by Office of Communications (Ofcom).


This means these offers can be accessed with just one click from the search results, and people don’t need to go to the dark web to find them. Ofcom also found that these popular search engines were returning similar webpages within advertised results, which generate revenue for Microsoft and Google.


What Ofcom found

Ahead of receiving new powers as the UK’s online safety regulator, Ofcom conducted research to test how easy it is to find – via search engines Google and Bing – sites offering to supply stolen credit card details and other items and information that criminals can use to defraud people. Ofcom categorise this in the research as content that is ‘likely to be prohibited’, much of which is likely to be illegal.[1]


This research focused on known slang terms for fraud material. While these terms may not be used frequently, they can help determined criminals commit fraud.


Search queries entered returned large volumes of content that appeared to be useable to perpetrate fraud within the first 20 results, meaning it was widely accessible at just one click. While certain search terms delivered few or no prohibited results, for other terms Ofcom researchers found that all of the top results returned would be likely to fall into the ‘prohibited’ category.


Ofcom also found that the search engines’ ‘autocomplete’ and ‘related search’ functions risked directing users towards potentially prohibited content by improving the relevance or specificity of their search queries. Websites claiming to sell illicit articles and items also appeared in a small number of advertised search results.


Separate research was carried out to determine how easy it is to access content relating to the sale of bladed weapons, firearms, controlled drugs and psychoactive substances via these popular search engines, which showed similar results and patterns. [2]


What’s being done to tackle this?

The impact of fraud, and the sale of illegal items, can be devastating. Around nine in ten online adults in the UK (87%) have come across content they suspected to be a scam or fraud, and a fifth (21%) of those who said they’d encountered online fraud had been scammed out of £1,000 or more.[3]


As Ofcom prepares for its new role as the UK’s online safety regulator, they’ve been carrying out an extensive programme of research to build evidence base as they develop Codes of Practice and Guidance, as well as engaging extensively with industry.


Under the new online safety laws, tech firms including Google and Microsoft will have to do much more to reduce the risk of illegal content appearing easily on their services. In advance of those new duties coming into force, Ofcom has met with both of these companies to understand the steps they currently take to tackle some of the issues raised in the research.


Both companies met with Ofcom several times over the summer to discuss how they can reduce exposure to illegal fraudulent content in response to specific search terms. They have made some changes in response to research, including removing some relevant autocomplete phrases and removing some paid-for advertised results, and have said they plan to do more. Ofcom will continue to engage with them on the whether these changes are effective in protecting users, and what more can be done. Online fraud will be a priority area for Ofcom as they gain powers under the upcoming Online Safety Act.


Source: Ofcom


Futher information

  1. Data was collected from 11 search queries across Google Search and Bing, providing a total of 448 search results and corresponding webpages, including advertised links, over a three-week period in January and February 2023.
  2. In April 2023, 384 searches were conducted by PUBLIC, focusing on a range of potentially prohibited items. Each unique search query was tested on Google Search and Bing. The queries incorporated four categories of potentially prohibited content: 1) knives and bladed weapons, 2) firearms, 3) controlled drugs and 4) psychoactive substances. Each query was searched across four search service products: text search, image search, shopping, and video search. For each of the 384 searches, 12 result URLs were selected at random from the top 30 results and analysed, which led to 4,608 results.
  3. Source: Ofcom-commissioned research into online fraud and scams, published March 2023.
  4. We have also published a report exploring the role of online communications platforms in how ‘minority beliefs’ are formed, maintained and communicated, and the role played by aspects of media literacy.


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