The federal organization overseeing the administration of funds from the 2008 bailout has cracked down on alleged scams that used Bing and Yahoo to lure vulnerable homeowners with ads for bogus mortgage modification deals.
The Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or SIGTARP, last week shut down 85 alleged online mortgage scams that advertised with Google and targeted struggling homeowners.
In the deal announced today (PDF), Microsoft, which owns Bing and powers ads that run in the United States on Yahoo, blocked all future advertising associated with the 125 scams identified by SIGTARP.
In publicizing the crackdown, SIGTARP noted that Microsoft has gone a step further than Google. The government group identified 125 scams and notified both companies. Microsoft suspended the ad relationships it had, and also took the additional step of preventing any of the other 125 scammers that hadn't placed ads using its tools from advertising in the future.
SIGTARP believed that Google had only blocked the 85 scams that appeared on its network. But today, Google appears to have also prevented the remained 40 scams from using its ad tools as well.
"Taking the extra step of blocking future advertisements by the people behind these scams will go a long way toward protecting vulnerable homeowners," said Christy Romero, deputy special inspector general for SIGTARP, told CNET. "We had not previously learned that Google had taken the extra step."
According to SIGTARP, the alleged scammers preyed on vulnerable homeowners, strapped for cash and hoping to lower their mortgage payments using a program created by the bailout. The program, known as the Home Affordable Modification Program, offers homeowners a opportunity to alter their payments to ease the burden.
"Many homeowners who have fallen prey to these scams were enticed by Web banner ads and online search advertisements that promised, for a fee, to help lower mortgage payments," Romero said in a statement. "SIGTARP's work in cutting off these Internet advertisements will immediately and dramatically decrease the scope and scale of these scams by limiting their ability to seek out and victimize struggling homeowners."
Microsoft said it will work with SIGTARP on the matter. Yahoo did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
"Microsoft is committed to preventing fraud within its advertising network and online community and is working closely with the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program to help tackle the problem of fraudulent mortgage-modification advertising," the company said in a statement.
SIGTARP hasn't said if it will seek a fine against Microsoft, Yahoo, or Google for accepting ads for these alleged scams. In August, Google agreed to pay $500 million to settle claims that it took ads from rogue online Canadian pharmacies in violation of federal law. In that case, the Department of Justice found that Google had knowingly accepted ads from companies that were illegally selling prescription drugs in the United States.
Microsoft did not comment on whether it would forfeit or donate the proceeds it received from the ads for those alleged scams. That's exactly what a public advocacy firm, Consumer Watchdog, wants it to do, just as it sought to have Google do when the news of its accepting the same ads broke last week. The advocacy group put out a report in February criticizing Google for taking these fraudulent ads.
"Clearly Microsoft and Yahoo have been turning a blind eye to these scammers," said John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project. "Simply put, too many Internet companies including Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo–under the guise of an open Internet–allow and even encourage scam ads from which they make millions of dollars."
And Consumer Watchdog goes as far as suggesting that executives at the companies should face criminal charges for aiding and abetting the fraudsters.
"Illicit behavior doesn't change until real people are held accountable for their actions," Simpson said.
The alleged scams included asking homeowners for upfront fees to assist with applying for the mortgage modification program, even though the program is free, according to SIGTARP. The feds said the rogue companies also encouraged homeowners to stop paying their mortgage and to cease all contact with their lender. Then, they sought to get homeowners to send them mortgage payments, transfer property deeds, and release sensitive personal financial information.
In its deal with SIGTARP, Microsoft suspended advertising relationships with more than 400 Internet advertisers and agents associated with the 125 alleged scams.
SIGTARP's investigation is ongoing.