PEOPLE in North Yorkshire who shop online are being warned to take care when using search engines.

The National Trading Standards eCrime Team (NTSeCT), based in Northallerton and York, was expanded last year to tackle the scammers who cost people in the UK £3.5 billion a year, and recently brought the first successful prosecution of a UK defendant involved in an international computer scam.

This month, the team has warned users of Google to remember that adverts appear above the search results, and can leave users paying more for goods, or allowing malware or viruses onto their computers.

Mike Andrews, who leads the team, said most people automatically assume that the top item on a list is the most appropriate, while it could actually be an advertisement.

He said: "Our best guess is it costs thousands to buy the adverts, but it’s extremely lucrative for the scammers. Research suggests 43 per cent to 45 per cent of consumers cannot tell the difference between an advert and the organic search.

"Natural conditioning is that the top is best or the top three is best. It's a combination of people being in a hurry, taking as read the top one is best, and not taking the time to look for a disclaimer because in their own mind they have already decided they are using this site because they’ve already clicked on it."

Mike said some fake adverts on search engines had already been taken down, and reassured users that many adverts were genuine, but urged computer users to take a little extra time when shopping or looking for services online, and make sure they are not being misled.

He said: "It’s not gullibility. It’s a matter of getting on and getting something done quickly. Medics, young executives and lawyers get taken in, so it’s not a matter of intelligence. The message is be aware of clicking and blindly accepting that the top link in the search results. It’s misusing legitimate marketing techniques.

"We’re not saying all adverts online are bad because they do a lot of good because they are tailored to what you’re searching pattern is but some people will blindly click on them and end up buying from somewhere they never would have and not getting a good experience."