Regulators have blacklisted nine unauthorized debt advice firms since April

Research has revealed that unscrupulous advertisers mimic the names of legitimate debt charities, raising concerns that vulnerable people seeking help are at risk of bad advice.

Since the beginning of April, nine companies purporting to provide debt advice have been placed on the Financial Conduct Authority’s blacklist of unauthorized firms, according to an exclusive analysis of This is Money from wealth manager Quilter.

Seven of the nine include the word “step” in their name, which means they are related to, or even the same thing as, legitimate debt charity StepChange.

Nine firms providing unauthorized debt advice, many of which mimic legitimate debt associations, have been blacklisted by the Financial Conduct Authority since April.

While six of the blacklisted “debt counselors” have had their websites taken down, the “Step Changing”, “Step Debt Support” and “Step Clear to Change” websites are still active.

The Step Changing website, stepchanging, offers to “write off up to 85 per cent of debt” with four simple questions.

In small print below, it reveals that it is “an independent website created to help users find debt help and advice. We work with FCA-regulated brokers who research and compare debt products and plans.

This indicates that it is a lead generating website designed to refer as many people as possible, who may be in a precarious financial situation, to debt counselors on commission.

Meanwhile, typing into StepChange on Google brings up two ads above a link to the charity’s official website, including one for the blacklisted company, but on this occasion, titled “Step With Change UK”.

This Money has been reported on multiple occasions for a trend of debt solutions being marketed as a life hack on Google and social media platforms as a way for people to easily write off their debts.

Blacklist: Consumers should avoid unauthorized debt advice firms
Trade Name Date of blacklisting Is their website still up and running?
Debt-free move June 2 number
Clear step out of debt May 28th number
step change May 28th yes
step debt line May 15th number
Graded Debt Support / Direct National Service May 15th yes
A clear step for change May 15th yes May 15th number
D£bt solutions April 30th number
Debt struggles April 9th number
Source: Financial Conduct Authority / Quilter

‘Although a Google policy change last year requiring advertisers to meet certain requirements improved but not resolved the situation, we still see search engine ads impersonating the charity,’ Sue Anderson of StepChange told This is Money.

When we see violations we always take action, the problem is that most ads don’t last long, but simply keep popping up again in a slightly different format.

“Always take particular care to verify that you are accessing a real debt charity’s website, not a fake.”

A site admits -

One site – “Step Changing” – admits to working with “brokers who research and compare debt products” – suggesting it acts as a lead generator and refers people for commission

The mass plagiarism of legitimate debt charities comes as they are inundated with record numbers of Britons seeking help because they worry about their finances.

This is especially the case as three-month payment holidays on credit cards, loans and mortgages expire, leaving families who may be out of work or furloughed on low incomes struggling to pay their bills again.

About 877,800 credit card payment holidays and 1.8 million mortgage holidays have been granted, according to the UK Financial Trade Authority.

While some families would save more, 28 percent of those surveyed by insurance and pension company Aegon said they had stopped saving since the coronavirus outbreak began to affect the economy.

Spot the difference: Above, the website for the real-life charity StepChange Debt.  Below, site

Spot the difference: Above, the website for the real-life charity StepChange Debt. Below, the “Step Debt Support” site that has been blacklisted by the FCA

Self-employed people furloughed were the most likely to be negatively affected, with 53 percent of self-employed and more than two in five of those reducing how much they managed to save.

And although households were borrowing less in March and April as consumer spending and credit card payments fell as a result, there is concern that rising unemployment will force some into debt to get by.

‘There is a risk that any savings will be short-term for households,’ said John Crosley, head of money at comparison site Compare Market.

Our Household Financial Confidence Tracker reveals that more than a fifth of families with children have turned to paid leave to help them through the current crisis.

site says

The Step Clear to Change website says it provides “expert debt help” but admits in small print that it is an “independent marketing website” that refers people to companies for money

He adds, “The deferred payments will eventually have to be made, and as interest continues to accrue in this period, this could lead to significant levels of consumer debt over the coming months when the payment is frozen.”

Moreover, nearly half of 18-24-year-olds said their income is not enough to make ends meet at the moment, and a quarter of them have had to dip into savings to help make ends meet.

All of this raises fears that anxious families could be exposed to bad advice at a time when they need help most.

Searching for StepChange on Google returns ads from companies like those blacklisted by the FCA over the past two months.

Searching for StepChange on Google returns ads from companies like those blacklisted by the FCA over the past two months.

Sue Anderson added: ‘Most worryingly, with the coronavirus pandemic leaving many families financially vulnerable, there is likely to be more incentive for scammers to try to lure people worried about their finances into potentially lucrative solutions. to the advertiser, but not necessarily the best solution.

Quilter’s Rachel Griffin said: ‘There are many government-supported services such as the Financial Advice Service and Pensions Advice Service, which are free to use, as well as charities such as StepChange or Citizens Advice.

“For some people, getting a professional opinion from a third party may be the best option, so seek professional financial advice with an approved provider.”

This Money tried to contact the three companies that still have active Web sites.

‘Step Clear to Change’ described itself as a debt advisory team and denied being misleading people, but hung up when pressed to find out why the unregulated ‘independent marketing site’ had a similar name 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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