With millions of distressed mortgage holders in the US, it was inevitable that criminals would start to prey on them through every scam possible, and one of the most popular has been to place specious online ads. These mendacious ads would promise mortgage help and then rip off the homeowners. The US government is working with Google to shut down these shameful scams, a signal that the Wild West Web days when anyone could advertise just about anything without compunction may be swiftly coming to a close.

85 Mortgage Scams Terminated

The US Office of the Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) is currently working on a criminal investigation involving Google AdWords’ acceptance and placement of hundreds of mortgage modification scam ads. The government agency is collaborating with the Googleplex in terminating over 500 web advertisers and agents operating 85 mortgage scams through the application of powerfully deceptive advertising on a very large scale. Many of these criminals were so devilishly inventive that they even adopted names that were similar to actual government agencies and Photoshopped official-looking seals and logos to reel in their unsuspecting victims.

Homeowners Lost Their Money & Property

Through these devious online ads the homeowners are informed that instead of marching inexorably towards foreclosure, they could stop paying their mortgages outright and even ignore calls from their lender. In exchange for a considerable up-front fee, the scammers would allegedly work through the US Home Affordable Modification Program to lower the mortgage payable. Instead, most of these schemes diverted both personal data and mortgage payments directly to the criminals, and in some cases even transferred property deeds without the homeowners realizing that they’d been scammed. The progression from a click on an online ad banner to losing your home to criminals was often staggeringly quick.

Google Has Already Forfeited $500 Million

Google has already agreed to write a check for half a billion dollars to the US government for accepting AdWords placements from Canadian pharmacies selling scriptless prescription drugs to American citizens. In light of that settlement, Google announced that they would be implementing everything “from extensive verification procedures, to automated keyword blocking, to changing our ads policies” in order to stop rogue advertisers.

A Future of More Restrictive Enforcement

The need to stop rampant online ad scams is both real and pressing since with the majority of Americans essentially living on the Internet, the US government has a powerful responsibility to protect the legal interests of its citizens. On the other hand Google and the other online ad networks can claim that holding them responsible for the illegal activities of their advertisers is somewhat akin to suing a telephone company because a criminal telemarketer used their lines to call up marks. However, the online industry has proven repeatedly unable or unwilling to police itself, as is witnessed by the fact that after years of Google insisting that its YouTube is free of copyright-infringing content, there are still millions of clips and even outright complete movies and television shows available for viewing. Legislation currently working its way through Congress would place severe restrictions on this sort of content and points to a future of more restrictive overall online legal enforcement.

To avoid the heavy hand of the government, the onus is on you to act ethically when promoting your brand through email and social network channels. Your online marketing message should strive to live up to the Rotary Club’s famous Four Way Test:

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build goodwill and better relationships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Adopting a policy of adhering to the strictest possible ethics is truly the only legitimate way forward for any email and social media marketer. Everything possible must be done to encourage the consumer to have trust, confidence and respect for your brand, and tactics that as much as border on the illegitimate must be shunned at all costs.