Misleading customer service ads on Google are costing consumers, Which? reveals

Consumers are being misled into using claims firms or dialling premium-rate numbers when trying to make an insurance claim, because ‘click to dial’ ads are appearing above insurers’ websites on Google, a Which? investigation has found. 

Which? analysed search results for the terms people most commonly use when searching for their car insurer’s phone number on Google, the default search engine on Android phones and Apple iPhones.

The consumer champion found claims management companies (CMCs) and premium-rate call connecting services competing for their adverts to appear above the insurer’s own website. 

Which? found one in five searches (21%) displayed adverts for ‘call connecting’ services at the top of the results. 

These adverts appear above the insurer’s number and when consumers tap on an advert, they’ll be taken to a website which displays a large phone number and a button that says ‘click to call’. Consumers will be put through to their insurer, but via a premium-rate phone number.

The cost of making these calls can quickly escalate – with a 30-minute phone call costing £112.50 on Sky, £124.50 on Three and £127.50 on Vodafone. 

Call connecting service ads are in breach of Google’s rules, so they shouldn’t be able to appear in the search results at all. Google says it takes action to remove these ads and in 2020, removed over 99 million ads in relation to restricted businesses.

The investigation also found ‘click to dial’ ads for claims management companies (CMCs) were rife and appeared in two in five searches (43%) for customer service phone numbers.

‘Click to dial’ ads have a clickable number in the search result itself. Some of these ads can trick customers to believe they’re contacting their insurer, when they’re actually being put through to a third-party to handle their claim, who will take a cut from any insurance payout. 

These charges often aren’t stated upfront on the CMCs websites and can catch consumers unaware. 

Insurers have been warning customers about the dangers of ‘click to dial’ adverts for CMCs for years, but they still commonly appear at the top of search results. Admiral told Which? it has had cases where customers only found out they’d been dealing with a CMC when they called Admiral directly for an update on their claim.

Admiral also said it has been complaining to Google about CMC adverts appearing at the top of search results for a number of years. It published a guide on its website warning its customers back in August 2018. Other insurers such as LV and Aviva have published similar warnings.

Insurers can only request that adverts are removed for specific reasons – for example if CMCs breach their trademark by using their name or logo. This means many potentially misleading adverts remain active, and if insurers want to get their own adverts above CMCs in the search rankings, they have to bid increasingly large amounts. 

Google said it doesn’t allow ads that deceive users by providing misleading information about products, services or businesses and removes ads which violate its policies. 

CMCs aren’t allowed to use the name or branding of the insurer in adverts as this is misleading but Which? believes they also shouldn’t be allowed to use words such as ‘official’ in their advert. 

Which? is calling on Google to take more effective action to stop premium-rate call connecting services, which violate their policies, from appearing in the first place. Clickable phone numbers that the user’s phone auto-dials are misleading and telephone numbers should not be allowed to appear in the preview of the content.

Consumers should avoid dialling any customer service numbers with ‘Ad’ in the top corner of the search result. They should also be wary of any search results that don’t match the term they typed in and any which don’t state the name of the company they’re trying to reach. 

Adam French, Which? Consumer Rights Expert said:  

“These types of ads have been a problem for years and many of us are unaware that when we use a number we find in an ad online, we risk being left out of pocket or accidentally employing a third party. 

“Google needs to work proactively to prevent call connecting ads which violate its rules and misleading click-to-dial ads from appearing in the first place. It must also take greater action to ensure these ads are not misleading consumers by branding themselves as ‘official’ customer service numbers. 

“In the meantime, unfortunately it is on us to keep an eye out for click to dial ads and call connecting companies online. Keeping a copy of the policy book from your car insurer in the glove compartment – or at least writing down their details – can help ensure you don’t make a costly mistake if your car breaks down.”

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