Unscrupulous advertisers are mimicking the names of legitimate debt charities, research has revealed, raising fears that vulnerable people looking for help are at risk of bad advice.
Since the start of April, nine companies purporting to offer debt advice have been placed on the Financial Conduct Authority’s blacklist of unauthorised firms, according to exclusive analysis for This is Money from wealth manager Quilter.
Seven of the nine include the word ‘Step’ in their name, implying they are connected to, or even the same as the legitimate debt charity StepChange.
Nine companies providing unauthorised debt advice, many mimicking legitimate debt charities, have been blacklisted by the FCA since April
While six of the blacklisted ‘debt advisers’ have had their websites taken down, those of ‘Step Changing’, ‘Step Debt Support’ and ‘Step Clear to Change’ are still active.
The website for ‘Step Changing’, ‘stepchanging .org.uk’, offers to ‘write off up to 85 per cent of debts’ with four simple questions.
In small print below, it reveals it is an ‘independent website created to help users find debt help and advice. We work with FCA regulated brokers who search and compare debt products and plans.’
This suggests it is a lead generating website designed to refer as many people, who may potentially be in a very perilous financial position, as possible to debt advisers in return for commission.
Meanwhile, typing in StepChange on Google returns two adverts above a link to the charity’s official website, including one to the blacklisted firm, but on this occasion, it is titled ‘Step With Change UK’.
|Business name||Date blacklisted||Is its website still running?|
|Step Debt Free||2 June||No|
|Step Clear From Debts||28 May||No|
|Step Changing||28 May||Yes|
|Step Debt Line||15 May||No|
|Step Debt Support/National Direct Service||15 May||Yes|
|Step Clear to Change||15 May||Yes|
|D£bt Solutions||30 April||No|
|Debt Struggles||9 April||No|
|Source: Financial Conduct Authority/Quilter|
Sue Anderson from StepChange told This is Money: ‘Despite Google’s policy change last year requiring advertisers to meet certain requirements, which has improved the situation but not solved it, we are still seeing search engine advertising that impersonates the charity.
‘Whenever we see infringements we always take action, the problem is that most adverts don’t last long, but simply keep popping up again in a slightly different format.
‘Always take particular care to check that you have reached the website of a genuine debt charity, and not a copycat.’
One of the sites – ‘Step Changing’ – admits it works with ‘brokers who search and compare debt products’ – suggesting it acts as a lead generator and refers people on commission
The mass impersonation of legitimate debt charities come as they are inundated with record numbers of Britons seeking help as they worry about their finances.
This is especially the case as three-month payment holidays on credit cards, loans and mortgages come to an end, leaving households who may be unemployed or furloughed on reduced income struggling to pay their bills once again.
Some 877,800 credit card payment holidays have been granted and 1.8million mortgage holidays, according to trade body UK Finance.
While some households will have saved more, 28 per cent of those surveyed by the insurance and pension provider Aegon said they had stopped saving since the coronavirus outbreak began impacting the economy.
Spot the difference: Above, the website of the real StepChange Debt Charity. Below, the website of ‘Step Debt Support’ which has been blacklisted by the FCA
Self-employed and furloughed people were the likeliest to have been negatively impacted, with 53 per cent of the self-employed and more than two in five of those furloughed reducing how much they have been able to save.
And although households have been borrowing less in March and April as consumer spending has fallen and paying off their credit cards as a result, there is the worry that increased unemployment will force some to turn to debt to get by.
John Crossley, head of money at comparison site Compare the Market, said: ‘There is a risk that any savings could be short-lived for households.
‘Our household financial confidence tracker reveals that over a fifth of families with children have turned to payment holidays to help them through the current crisis.
The website ‘Step Clear to Change’ says it provides ‘expert debt help’ but admits in small print it is an ‘independent marketing website’ which refers people to companies for money
He adds: ‘Deferred payments will eventually need to be paid back and with interest still accruing in this period, it could lead to significant levels of consumer debt over the coming months when payment freezes to an end.
‘Moreover, nearly half of 18-24-year-olds have said that their income is not enough to cover their outgoings at the moment and a quarter have had to dip into savings to help make ends meet.’
All this raises concerns that worried households could be roped into bad advice at a time when they need help the most.
Searching for StepChange on Google returns adverts from companies like the ones blacklisted by the FCA over the last two months
Sue Anderson added: ‘What is most worrying is that, with the coronavirus pandemic having left many households financially vulnerable, there is potentially an even greater incentive for the scammers to try to lure people who are worried about their finances into solutions that might be lucrative for the advertiser, but not necessarily the best solution.’
Quilter’s Rachael Griffin said: ‘There are many government-backed services such as the Money Advice Service and The Pensions Advisory Service, which are free to use, as well as charities like StepChange or Citizens Advice.
‘For some people, getting a third-party professional opinion might be the best option and so seek out professional financial advice with an authorised provider.’
This is Money attempted to contact the three companies which still have active websites.
‘Step Clear to Change’ described itself as a debt counselling team and denied it was misleading people, but put down the phone when pressed on why the unregulated ‘independent marketing website’ had come up with a name similar to that of a legitimate debt charity.
‘Step Changing’ did not respond to a request for comment, and ‘Step Debt Support’ could not be reached for comment.
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