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A welcome crackdown on misleading debt advice adverts

In a recent blog, we highlighted the...

Meg van Rooyen

Policy Lead for the Money Advice Trust

Posted June 23, 2022

In a recent blog, we highlighted the issue of misleading debt advice adverts. This means that, when you search online for ‘debt advice’ it is highly likely you will see a long list of adverts promoting “government-backed” debt advice with promises to “write off your debt”. We also frequently see websites appearing to pass themselves off as National Debtline and other debt advice charities, causing huge detriment to people seeking genuine, free and independent help with their debts.

Some good news

This is an issue we’ve been raising for many years. So, we are really pleased that the UK Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), the sister organisation of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), has issued a new enforcement notice for debt management adverts by insolvency practitioners and lead generation firms.

These organisations might not be that well known to everyone, but they are important. CAP sets advertising codes and the ASA helps make sure ads across UK media stick to these.

Shaped by our and other charities’ evidence, the notice means firms will have to review their adverts and make changes to make sure their debt adverts are compliant with the notice. It will apply to ads in all forms of traditional media and digital media (including social media and website content) and CAP will start targeted monitoring and enforcement action from 25th July 2022.

The notice says in plain terms:

“Ads targeted at consumers with debt problems have the potential to cause serious detriment if they do not comply with the advertising rules. Insolvency practitioners and lead generation companies which ultimately advertise an IVA [Individual Voluntary Arrangement]/PTD [Protected Trust Deeds] service must be extremely careful to ensure their advertising is responsible and does not mislead.”

The enforcement notice sets out in detail what adverts in different media should not say or imply. We are particularly pleased to see that social media adverts should not state or imply “affiliation or approval from debt charities” such as National Debtline.

The issuing of the enforcement notice is a positive step and a recognition of the scale of the problem. We hope it will be effective and deters the egregious adverts that we see for services that push people in debt towards a certain type of debt solution, regardless of whether this is the best option for their situation.

Keep reporting

We have made it a policy to report the harmful adverts we see to the FCA, the Insolvency Service and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on a regular basis. We also ask search engines to remove adverts where they are impersonating a free debt advice charity such as National Debtline.

We have produced a new short guide on how you can report misleading adverts based on when and where you see them.

The guide covers

  • how to report misleading debt adverts on social media and search engines; and
  • how to report misleading debt adverts to various regulatory bodies.

It is particularly important to report adverts to the ASA so that they can take the necessary action against firms who are not complying with the enforcement notice.

What is next?

It is encouraging to see the ASA take firm action in this space. We will be examining how successful this is through our regular monitoring of debt adverts on social media.

Ultimately, there is still a regulatory gap between the FCA powers, and the Insolvency Service rules that allows these types of debt adverts to appear and for some firms to act in a way that causes harm. Alongside this welcome action from CAP and ASA to enforce the current rules, we also need to see the FCA and the Insolvency Service act together and take a comprehensive approach to stamp out this problem once and for all.

Meg van Rooyen

Policy Lead for the Money Advice Trust

Meg is the Money Advice Trust's Policy Lead and has more than 35 years' experience in the debt advice sector. She is on the Quarterly Account editorial board and a range of other forums. View all posts from Meg van Rooyen.

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