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OFT Warns 92% of Debt Management Firms Breaking Credit Law

ConsumerWatch / Debt & Loans Sep 28, 2010 - 02:15 AM GMT

By: Submissions

ConsumerWatch

Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleThe OFT has told 129 debt management firms that they face losing their consumer credit licences unless immediate action is taken to comply with its Debt Management Guidance.

The firms are required to provide independently audited evidence within three months that action has been taken to address identified concerns. If evidence is not provided, the OFT will instigate licensing action.


The formal warnings follow an OFT review of the debt management sector, published today, which found widespread problems.

Debt management companies, which sit alongside free government-funded and charitable services, are fee-charging firms that provide advice and solutions to consumers with debt problems. The services they offer can include arranging IVAs, setting up debt management plans, and negotiating settlements with creditors. Consumers contacting debt management companies tend to be over-indebted, vulnerable and desperate for help with managing their financial difficulties.

The key findings to emerge from the review, which included onsite compliance visits by Trading Standards Officers, a website sweep and a mystery shopping exercise, are that:

  • misleading advertising is the most significant area of non-compliance, in particular failing to disclose a fee is retained by the business and misrepresenting debt management services as being free when they are not
  • frontline advisers working for debt management companies are lacking in competence and are providing poor advice based on inadequate information
  • there is low industry awareness of the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) rules for resolving consumer complaints.

Today's OFT report sets out a detailed action plan to improve standards across the industry, focusing on robust enforcement action against licensees that fail, or refuse, to change advertising and/or behaviour.

The OFT also plans to update its Guidance to take explicit account of new and emerging unfair business practices, and will work with the two main trade bodies, the Debt Managers Standards Association (DEMSA) and the Debt Resolution Forum (DRF) to support their initiatives to introduce higher standards into the industry.

Ray Watson, Director of the OFT's Consumer Credit Group, said:

'People who are heavily indebted, desperate and vulnerable need advice which makes their problem better not worse and should not be exploited. Debt management firms must be clear about their charges and the options available to customers.

'The level of non-compliance we found across the industry is unacceptable. If any of the 129 firms identified do not improve their standards substantially they will be the subject of licensing action by the OFT.

'We are also looking to the two main industry bodies to lead the way in raising standards and to meet their commitments to make the industry more professional and responsible.'

Since April 2008 when the OFT obtained new powers under the Consumer Credit Act, it has taken 37 formal actions to impose requirements or refuse or revoke licences held or applied for by debt management businesses. Other OFT actions have included shutting down websites, and addressing issues such as companies masquerading as charities, systemic cold-calling and the mis-selling of IVAs. It has also worked with Trading Standards to take injunctive action to stop 'debt sale' scams.

NOTES

  1. Download the full findings of the review (pdf 592kb).
  2. The OFT is not able to name the 129 companies because of disclosure restrictions under Part 9 of the Enterprise Act 2002. Where the OFT uses its formal powers under the Consumer Credit Act 1974 to refuse or revoke a credit licence, decisions are made public on the Consumer Credit Public Register. 
  3. The Consumer Credit Act 1974 (the Act) places a duty on the OFT to ensure that licences are only given to and retained by those who are fit to hold them. The OFT's Debt Management Guidance (pdf 218kb) (updated September 2008) sets out the minimum standards for this industry. The OFT takes the view that a failure to adhere to the minimum standards in the Guidance could be considered to be engaging in business practices which are unfair or improper (whether lawful or not) under Section 25(2A)(e) of the Act and can be considered as evidence leading to formal OFT action. 
  4. The OFT launched the Debt Management Compliance Review in November 2009. The methodology included an internet advertising compliance sweep of 100 debt advice and debt management websites, questionnaires, meetings with trade associations, consumer representative bodies and government departments, on-site compliance visits, a mystery shopping study and a complaint form for consumers on the OFT's website. Download the mystery shopping report (pdf 764kb)
  5. DEMSA and the DRF have assured the OFT that they are fully committed to remedying the non-compliances of their members and making the industry more professional and more responsible. Following intervention from DEMSA, its members have already taken corrective action to address identified issues of non-compliance. The DRF has also made progress in remedying the highlighted non-compliances by its members including issuing best practice guidelines. Commitments from the trade associations, secured as part of the OFT's review, include plans to introduce robust compliance monitoring systems for their members, to develop accredited training programmes and to operate independent consumer complaint panels, as well as taking more active steps to address members' non-compliance.

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