The UK Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is to invest £4.5m ($7m) in protecting British citizens from fraudulent activity online, it has been announced.

The OFT, a government department set up to safeguard consumer rights, will team up with Trading Standards after it was revealed that online scams and fraud cost UK internet users around £3bn a year.

The funding, which will be spread over a three year period, will be used to raise awareness of email phishing scams and fraudulent websites. Issues such as consumer rights, particularly when purchasing goods from overseas, as well as increased awareness of antivirus software programs will also form part of the strategy.

“Online consumer protection is a key priority for the OFT,” said Heather Clayton, senior director of OFT.

“The enforcement team will be looking at the activities of a wide range of commercial web sites, and taking action in cases where consumer rights are being abused.”

Recent research by the OFT last year found that 73% of adults had received a scam e-mail in the past year, with almost 10% of adults – more than four million people – in Britain said they had responded to a scam in their lives.

Almost a half of those who did respond to a scam had lost more than £50, while 5% admitted to losing more than £5,000.

“The internet is rapidly transforming the way we shop. It presents massive opportunities for consumers, but unfortunately it also harbours fraudsters who can leave consumers upset and out of pocket,” added the government’s Consumer Minister Kevin Brennan.

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