Posted June 7, 2022
Our Policy Lead, Meg van Rooyen, explores the issue of misleading online debt advice adverts and our new guide for reporting them.
Back in January 2022, I wrote about the issue of misleading debt advice adverts online and some of the progress made in trying to address this problem. As I outlined then, and in previous posts on the subject, when you search online for ‘debt advice’ it is highly likely that you will see a long list of adverts promoting “government-backed” debt advice with promises to “write off your debt” and websites appearing to pass themselves off as National Debtline and other free, debt advice charities.
We have produced a new short guide on how you can report misleading adverts based on when and where you see them.
What is the issue?
The issue with these adverts – often from lead generation or debt packager firms – is that they can lead people away from genuine, free, independent debt advice. This in turn can put people who need free, independent debt advice, at risk of being pushed towards a certain type of debt solution, regardless of whether this is the best option for their situation. With rising household costs heaping more pressure on already squeezed budgets, it is more important than ever, that people are able to access the debt advice and support they need at the first opportunity.
Whilst some progress has been made, as this ruling from the ASA from December 2021 shows, the problem has not gone away.
Making sure it is us
We continue to see this type of activity online (see example below) including websites passing themselves off as National Debtline and other free debt advice charities.
To make sure people feel confident that they are contacting our services, we have put together a few tips on ‘how to make sure it is us’ - www.nationaldebtline.org/making-sure-its-us/.
- Checking it is the right web address - If the web address isn't www.nationaldebtline.org then it isn't us. A fake company might use a web address that is very similar to ours.
- Your personal information: Be careful about sharing your personal information. Debt advice charities will never cold call you and will not pass your personal information on to private companies.
- Are they a registered charity? You can check if any company is a registered charity on the Charity Commission website.
- Is it our logo? Our logo is at the top of every webpage on our website. If this is not the logo you can see, it's not us.
Working with regulators and search engines
We have made it a policy to report these harmful adverts 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.
This work has helped lead to the FCA issuing warnings about two unauthorised firms that appear to impersonate National Debtline. The firms use the names ‘National-Debt-Helpline’ and ‘National Debtlines’ when advertising their services online. Alongside this, the ASA has taken action against companies they found to have used ‘misleading’ and ‘irresponsible’ debt advice adverts that were likely to mislead consumers.
We believe there is a regulatory gap that allows these types of debt adverts to appear and for some firms to act in a way that should not be allowed to continue. It is encouraging to see some action being taken, although we would like to see regulators act together and take a comprehensive approach to solving this problem.
Reporting misleading ads
Alongside the activity I have outlined, we would encourage anyone who sees a misleading debt advert to report them when they see them. Our short guide is designed to help with this reporting and breaks down how to do this according to where you see the advert.
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.
Whilst we want to see firm action from regulators, the ASA, social media firms and search engines, to prevent these ads appearing in the first place, we can all play our part by reporting this type of activity whenever we can.
Read our guide on how you can report misleading adverts.
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.