icola Bulley’s family and friends have questioned a police theory that the missing dog walker fell in a river.
In a Facebook post, Ms Bulley’s sister, Louise Cunningham, urged people to “keep an open mind” as there is “no evidence whatsoever” that the dog walker fell in the river.
“Off the back of the latest Police media update, please can I add there is no evidence whatsoever that she has gone into the river, it’s just a theory,” she said.
“Everyone needs to keep an open mind as not all CCTV and leads have been investigated fully, the police confirmed the case is far from over.”
Search teams from Lancashire Constabulary are continuing to trawl the River Wyre near St Michael’s, working on the hypothesis that the missing mother-of-two, from nearby Inskip, could have fallen in when she disappeared on January 27.
Ms Bulley’s friend, Emma White, also cast doubt on the police theory, telling Sky News it was based on “limited information”.
“When we are talking about a life we can’t base it on a hypothesis – surely we need this factual evidence,” she said.
“That’s what the family and all of us are holding on to – that we are sadly no further on than last Friday.
“We still have no evidence, and that’s why we’re out together in force.
“You don’t base life on a hypothesis.”
Police believe the 45-year-old mortgage adviser went missing in just “a 10-minute window” while she was walking her dog, Willow, close to the River Wyre, after dropping off her daughters – aged six and nine – at school.
Ms Bulley had logged in to a Microsoft Teams call at 9.01am, which ended at 9.30am with her phone still connected to the call.
She was seen by another dog walker at 9.10am – the last known sighting – and police traced telephony records of her mobile phone as it remained on a bench overlooking the river at 9.20am.
The device was found by a dog walker at around 9.35am, with Willow nearby.
The police search has been aided by specialists and divers from HM Coastguard, mountain rescue, and Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service – with sniffer dogs, drones and police helicopters deployed.
Detectives are also working behind the scenes to analyse CCTV and dashcam videos, and members of the public with footage which could be useful have been urged to come forward.
Lloyds Bank this weekend fired a salvo at Facebook-owner Meta, slamming it for failing to stop a ‘Wild West’ surge in online shopping scams. Britain’s biggest retail bank – which has 26 million customers – blasted the social media giant for enabling so-called ‘purchase’ frauds.
The banking group claimed two-thirds of the scams start on Meta-owned platforms, which also includes Instagram.
Banks and insurance groups have been frustrated for years that social media companies are not made to pay their fair share of compensation to victims for frauds hosted on their platforms.
But it is highly unusual for a lender like Lloyds to take aim at an individual tech firm like Meta.
The intervention puts Lloyds Banking Group boss Charlie Nunn at loggerheads with Facebook tycoon Mark Zuckerberg.
Face-off: Lloyds Banking Group boss Charlie Nunn and Meta executive chairman Mark Zuckerberg
British banks have previously urged ministers to tackle online financial scams amid concerns that criminals are using Facebook and Google to place fraudulent advertisements with impunity.
The failure of internet giants to check the authenticity of digital ads has led to a surge of scams, they claim. These include ‘brand cloning’, where criminals impersonate legitimate businesses to dupe victims into handing over their savings. Purchase fraud tends to target younger consumers who are tricked into paying for sought-after items that don’t actually exist.
Victims are lured by the offer of a cheap deal – often advertised on social media – and then asked to send money from their own secure online bank account direct to the seller via a transfer system known as faster payments.
However, this provides very little protection when things go wrong.
The scam is a small but growing part of online fraud, which now accounts for 40 per cent of all crime and costs £7 billion a year, according to latest government figures.
The number of purchase frauds has soared by 40 per cent since the start of the pandemic to over 117,000 cases in 2022, according to the UK Finance trade body. It coincided with a boom in online shopping, more time spent on social media and shortages of certain goods caused by supply chain issues.
Lloyds, whose brands include Hailfax and Bank of Scotland, estimates that someone falls victim to the scam on a Meta-owned platform every seven minutes, costing consumers £27 million this year alone.
The average amount lost by the victims of purchase scams is around £570. Clothes, trainers, gaming consoles and mobile phones are among the most common goods being falsely advertised for sale.
Lloyds said it reimburses ‘the majority’ of victims and has invested ‘hundreds of millions of pounds’ in security systems to beat the scammers.
But refunds don’t address the emotional trauma of being a victim of fraud or stop the flow of money to organised crime, it added.
‘Social media has become the Wild West of online shopping in recent years, with very few checks in place to verify who is selling what,’ said Liz Ziegler, fraud prevention director at Lloyds Banking Group.
The Government’s new national fraud strategy allows banks more time to slow down suspicious payments. But Ziegler said banks couldn’t fight the ‘epidemic of scams’ alone.
‘It’s high time tech companies stepped up to share responsibility for protecting their own customers,’ she said.
‘This means stopping scams at source and contributing to refunds when their platforms are used to defraud innocent victims.’
An amendment to the long-delayed Online Safety Bill requires social media firms to prevent paid-for fraudulent adverts, regardless of whether the ads are controlled by the platforms or an intermediary. It followed pressure from consumer groups, charities and the banking industry who claimed the Government’s approach to tackling online fraud was ‘flawed’.
But critics say the proposals still don’t go far enough. ‘Fraudsters don’t just pay for adverts or create fraudulent content that fits within the scope of the Bill,’ said a banking industry source. ‘The exclusion of online marketplaces like Facebook’s is therefore a significant loophole.’
Campaigners say only the threat of fines will force the social media companies to act.
‘Without penalties there’s nothing in it for them to stop the scams from happening,’ said consumer champion Baroness Altmann. She fears the Government is ‘absolutely terrified of upsetting the tech companies’ and of being seen to clamp down on the free market.
James Daley, founder of consumer campaign group Fairer Finance, said social media sites had become ‘a gateway for fraudsters’.
‘Firms like Meta have a clear responsibility to step up and protect their users,’ he said. ‘But if past experience is anything to go by, it’s unlikely these firms will do much if they don’t have to.
‘The Government announced plans to introduce new protections last year, but these have now been kicked into the long grass again.’
Meta said purchase fraud was ‘an industry-wide issue’ with scammers using ‘increasingly sophisticated methods’ to defraud people ‘in a range of ways, including email, text and offline’.
A spokesman said: ‘We don’t want anyone to fall victim to these criminals which is why our platforms have systems to block scams. Financial services advertisers now have to be authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority.’
The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology was approached for comment.
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NHS trusts are sharing intimate details about patients’ medical conditions, appointments and treatments with Facebook without consent and despite promising never to do so.
An Observer investigation has uncovered a covert tracking tool in the websites of 20 NHS trusts which has for years collected browsing information and shared it with the tech giant in a major breach of privacy.
The data includes granular details of pages viewed, buttons clicked and keywords searched. It is matched to the user’s IP address – an identifier linked to an individual or household – and in many cases details of their Facebook account.
Information extracted by Meta Pixel can be used by Facebook’s parent company, Meta, for its own business purposes – including improving its targeted advertising services.
Records of information sent to the firm by NHS websites reveal it includes data which – when linked to an individual – could reveal personal medical details.
It was collected from patients who visited hundreds of NHS webpages about HIV, self-harm, gender identity services, sexual health, cancer, children’s treatment and more.
It also includes details of when web users clicked buttons to book an appointment, order a repeat prescription, request a referral or to complete an online counselling course. Millions of patients are potentially affected.
This weekend, 17 of the 20 NHS trusts that were using Meta Pixel confirmed they had pulled the tracking tool from their websites.
Eight issued apologies to patients. Multiple trusts said they had originally installed the tracking pixels to monitor recruitment or charity campaigns and were not aware that they were sending patient data to Facebook. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is investigating.
Der Observer can reveal:
In one case, Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS trust shared when a user viewed a patient handbook for HIV medication. The name of the drug and the NHS trust were sent to the company along with the user’s IP address and details of their Facebook user ID.
Alder Hey Children’s trust in Liverpool, sent Facebook details when users visited webpages for sexual development problems, crisis mental health services and eating disorders. It also shared data when users clicked to order repeat prescriptions.
The Tavistock and Portman NHS foundation trust in London shared data with Facebook when users clicked the information page for its gender identity service, which specialises in working with children who have gender dysphoria. Data was also shared when users viewed the webpage for the Portman Clinic, which “offers specialist help with disturbing sexual behaviours”, and clicked for details on how to be referred to the service.
Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS trust shared data with Facebook when a patient clicked buttons indicating they were under 18, lived in Brighton and wanted to access mental health services.
Other NHS trusts sent detailed receipts to Facebook when users accessed pages for appointment bookings or completed online self-help courses. Barts Health NHS trust, which serves a population of 2.5 million in London, shared data with Facebook when a user clicked to “cancel or change an appointment” or added a visit to a particular hospital to their itinerary.
The Royal Marsden, a specialist cancer centre, sent data on patients requesting referrals, viewing information about private care and browsing pages for particular cancer types.
Information sent to the company is likely to include special category health data, which has extra protection in law and is defined as information “about an individual’s past, current or future health status”, including medical conditions, tests and treatment and “any related data which reveals anything about the state of someone’s health”. Using or sharing it without explicit consent or another lawful basis is illegal.
Once the data reaches Facebook’s servers, it is not possible to track exactly how it is used. The company says it prohibits organisations from sending it sensitive health information and has filters to weed such data out when it is received by mistake.
Professor David Leslie, director of ethics at the Alan Turing Institute, said the transfer of data to third parties by the NHS risked damaging the “delicate relationship of trust” with patients. “Our reasonable expectation when we’re accessing an NHS website is that our data won’t be extracted and shared with third-party commercial entities that could [use it] for targeting ads or linking our personal identities to health conditions,” he said.
He accused Meta of doing too little to monitor what information it was being sent. “Meta says we don’t permit certain types of data being sent to us but they haven’t spent enough on resources to audit this,” Christl said.
In most cases, the information sent to Facebook during a test by the Observer was transferred automatically upon loading a website – before the user had selected to “accept” or “decline” cookies – and without explicit consent. Only three of the 20 trusts mentioned Facebook or Meta in their privacy policies at all. Several of the trusts had previously promised patients that their information would not be shared or used for marketing.
Collectively, the 20 NHS trusts found using the tracking tool serve a population of more than 22 million people in England, stretching from Devon to the Pennines. Some had been using it for several years.
In a statement, the trust apologised to patients and said the Meta Pixel had been active on its website in error. “It was installed in relation to a recruitment campaign, and we were not aware that Meta was using this information for marketing purposes,” a spokesperson said. “Immediate action has been taken to remove it.”
The Royal Marsden said it regularly reviewed its privacy policies but did not say whether it planned to remove the pixel. Barts said it was removing trackers from its website “following the disclosure that they were being used to extract personal information beyond the purpose for which they were originally installed, which was to measure responses to recruitment advertising campaigns.”
Several said they were unaware of how data would be used and apologised to patients for failing to get consent. Aside from the 17 who pulled or are pulling the tool, Hertfordshire Partnership trust and Royal Marsden said they were investigating the issues internally and only the Tavistock and Portman did not respond to requests for comment.
The ICO said it had “noted the findings” and was considering the matter. “People have the right to expect that organisations will handle their information securely and that it will only be used for the purpose they are told,” a spokesperson said.
Several leading US hospitals are currently being sued by their patients over their use of the pixels, which are tiny pieces of code that are invisible during normal browsing.
Meta is also facing legal action over accusations of knowingly receiving sensitive health information – including from pages within patient portals – and not taking steps to stop it. The plaintiffs claim Meta violated their medical privacy by intercepting “individually identifiable health information” from its partner websites and “monetising” it.
Jeffrey Koncius, a partner at Kiesel Law in California and one of the attorneys leading the action, said the data transfer by the NHS websites appeared similar to what was happening in the US. “Imagine if a hospital sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg and said, ‘We want you to know that Jeff Koncius is our patient,’” he said. “That’s exactly what’s happening here. It’s just happening electronically.”
The Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper described the findings as a “shocking discovery” that raised serious questions about the protection of patient information. “The NHS must investigate how this happened and how widespread this alleged data breach is,” she said.
NHS England said individual trusts were responsible for ensuring they followed data protection laws. “The NHS is looking into this issue and will take further action if necessary,” a spokesperson said.
Meta said it had contacted the trusts to remind them of its policies, which prohibited organisations from sending it health data. “We educate advertisers on properly setting up business tools to prevent this from occurring,” the spokesperson said. They added it was website owner’s responsibility to ensure it complied with data protection laws and had obtained consent before sending data.
The company did not answer questions about the effectiveness of its filters designed to weed out “potentially sensitive data”, or which types of information they would block from hospital websites – or say why it permitted NHS trusts to send it data at all, given the high risk it could reveal details about the web user’s health.
“Like any technology, our filters won’t be able to catch everything all of the time. However, we are constantly improving our mechanisms to make sure we catch as much as we can,” a spokesperson said.
The company offers its business tools to advertisers, saying they can help them use health-based advertising to “grow your business”. In one guide, it says data collected through its business tools can improve users’ Facebook experience by showing them ads they “might be interested in”. “You may see ads for hotel deals if you visit travel websites,” it explains.
Sam Smith, at medConfidential, a data privacy campaign group, said it was never appropriate for the tools to be used to collect health information. “There’s no benefit to NHS trusts in giving this information away. It’s like asking a tobacco company to sponsor a cancer ward,” he said. “NHS England is tacitly approving this by not enforcing anything better.”
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