The UK’s advertising watchdog has banned ads from two unregulated lead generators after they were found to mimic legitimate debt charities and were allegedly sanctioned by the government.
The sites “writeoffmydebt” and “stepdebtsupport” were criticized by the Advertising Standards Authority after a series of complaints by the government-funded Money and Pensions Department, all of which were upheld.
The ASA announced that the companies behind the websites and online advertisements, Stockport-based Fidelitas Group and Burnley-based National Direct Service, had misled their site visitors through search engine advertisements by making them believe they were dealing with authorized debt advisors or government-approved services.
The website and advertisements of the Fidelitas Group, which called itself a religious write-off, were found to be misleading by advertising regulators.
In fact, neither site has been licensed by the Financial Conduct Authority and neither has been found to have adequately explained that visitors’ details would be passed on to third parties in exchange for commission.
Indeed, one company, National Direct Service, was disclosed by This is Money last year as being blacklisted by the Financial Conduct Authority for providing unregulated services and simulating StepChange debt charities as far back as May 2020.
It traded under the name “Step Debt Support”, while the Bing ad provided by the ASA had the slogan “Step to Change – Free Government Debt Support – Step to Change”.
Its website was still active when we investigated the matter of ‘lead generators’, which pass details of vulnerable Britons to debt solutions providers on commission, impersonating debt advice charities such as National Debtline and StepChange last September, but It was finally deleted.
Its announcements were initially reported by a registered insolvency practitioner last April, but were spotted and reported by MAPS last July, along with Fidelitas announcements, the ASA said.
The company declined to respond to ASA inquiries and previously could not be reached for comment last June when This is Money reported that it had been blacklisted by the FCA.
Fidelitas Group’s website, “writeoffmydebt”, is “under maintenance”.
According to screenshots provided by the ASA, the site claimed those debts of £5,000 or more could ‘write off unsustainable debt and save thousands with a government-sanctioned debt relief scheme’.
Spot the difference: Above, the website for the real-life charity StepChange Debt. Below, the ‘Step Debt Support’ website whose ads have been banned by the ASA following the charity’s tradition since last May
The website and five Google ads listed as evidence in the ASA decision were found to mislead consumers into believing that the company was affiliated with government and citizen advice and was approved by the Free Financial Advice Service, part of the Money and Pensions Service.
We have contacted both companies for comment.
The ASA’s findings add more pressure on Google, which an investigation by This is Money last September found had earned thousands of pounds from such imitators.
He was accused of ignoring complaints and taking more than a week to remove ads that directly infringed the trademarks of the likes of StepChange.
The search engine has been contacted for comment.
|Trade Name||Date of blacklisting|
|The step is to change the contact number||July 8th|
|National Debt Helpline||June 12th|
|national debt lines||June 12th|
|Debt-free move||June 2|
|Clear step out of debt||May 28th|
|step change||May 28th|
|step debt line||May 15th|
|Graded Debt Support / Direct National Service||May 15th|
|A clear step for change||May 15th|
|D£bt solutions||April 30th|
|Debt struggles||April 9th|
|Source: Financial Conduct Authority|
Caroline Šarkiewicz, chief executive of the Department of Finance and Pensions, called the companies’ practices “disturbing”.
She said: ‘Many have pointed out a misleading association with real debt counseling charities, leading some clients to unknowingly seek services from a commercial organization when they were looking for free advice.
“Other claims made by some companies have the potential to get people to seek debt resolution that may not be appropriate for their circumstances and in some cases require them to pay unnecessary fees.”
Advertisements from companies have been found to be misleading suggesting they are government approved or even connected to legitimate debt charities such as StepChange.
It said the ASA’s decision came at a “critical time,” as the Money Advice Service expects a call every four minutes in January. MAPS was awarded an additional £37.8m by the Treasury last June to fund debt advice in England ahead of an expected surge in demand for debt advice due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Neither company whose ads were banned was allowed to offer debt counseling services or do “anything more than pass on leads” to providers of individual voluntary arrangements.
These debt solutions reached an all-time high in 2019, accounting for 77,982 out of 122,181 individual bankruptcies.
Both companies whose ads were blocked referred visitors to providers of individual voluntary arrangements in return for commission – regardless of whether that debt solution was the right one.
This is Money has previously reported concerns on multiple occasions about how such debt solutions, which can only be approved by approved insolvency practitioners, are marketed as “life hacking”, with ads poking at vulnerable people by claiming to write off all What debt they have.
In fact, debtors, who accounted for 63.8 percent of all insolvencies in 2019, up from just 37.5 percent in 2010, could see these debtors having to use their pension payments or savings to pay their creditors or remortgaging their homes, while It can also wreck their credit score.
The ASA warned that some ads may see those who need debt advice “end up going the IVA route without considering other options that might be more suitable for them.”
Yet advertisements about how people can write off ‘up to 90 per cent debt’ continue to be plastered all over social media and Google, with that money finding 13 fake and unregulated debt websites blacklisted from By FCA between apr. and September, 11 of which impersonated a StepChange Debt Charity or National Debtline.
In response to the ASA rulings, StepChange called the decisions the tip of the iceberg and said it had already reported eight cases of trademark infringement to the likes of Bing and Google in the first three weeks of 2021.
Richard Lane, the charity’s director of external affairs, said: ‘There is clearly a need for better protection to stop people being deceived into thinking they are dealing with a charity to provide debt advice, when in fact they are being tempted to offer their services. Personal details of driving generators operating on behalf of IVA commercial plants.
The ASA confirmed what we already knew: There are a lot of misleading advertisements out there, including from groups impersonating legitimate debt counseling organizations.
Combined with the FCA’s warnings about clone companies impersonating debt advice charities like ours, this assertion is instructive, but it can’t be the end of the story.
“What matters now is that there are more decisive measures being taken by regulators to tighten control over how companies that provide additive appraisal services acquire their clients, so that people get better advice about all possible options for dealing with debt before making a premature decision, especially those that might be out there.” on unethical practices or false allegations.
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