City watchdog clamps down on debt firms over advice to vulnerable customers

Five firms stop handing out recommendations after FCA identifies potential conflicts of interest

The City regulator has clamped down on debt firms after finding some were potentially pushing vulnerable customers towards insolvency in order to earn higher fees.

The Financial Conduct Authority said some firms appeared to have “manipulated” people’s income and spending and encouraged them to seek individual voluntary arrangements (IVAs), which can ultimately lead to bankruptcy.

As a result of the review, the FCA wrote to five firms identifying “significant concerns over their practices”. These five companies have now stopped providing regulated debt advice until further notice, and the watchdog used its formal powers to remove another company’s permission to give advice.

The clampdown involves so-called “debt packager” firms, which seek out people in debt, offer advice and then refer them on to an insolvency practitioner or debt management company, for which they receive referral fees.

Under an IVA, individuals make regular payments to an insolvency practitioner, who shares it out between their creditors. If they are wrongly advised to sign up to an IVA, they may struggle to keep up repayments and could ultimately be made bankrupt.

The FCA has been concerned for some time about the fact that the fees the debt packager firms receive can be many times higher for an IVA than for other debt solutions.

The regulator said it expected firms to manage this “conflict of interest” relating to the higher fees to ensure their advice was “right for consumers, not just firms’ financial interests”.

The latest review uncovered concerns that some debt packager firms “appear to have manipulated” people’s income and spending to meet the criteria for an IVA or its Scottish equivalent, a protected trust deed (PTD); used “persuasive language” to push these products without fully explaining the risks; and provided advice that did not accurately reflect their conversations with consumers or information that the individuals had given.

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In some cases, the FCA’s view was that firms failed to sufficiently take into account people’s circumstances and vulnerabilities, including mental health issues and “economic abuse” that they had suffered – which can include putting debts in someone else’s name.

Sheldon Mills, the executive director of consumers and competition at the FCA, said: “The practices we’ve seen in this sector fall far short of the standards we expect from firms, let alone those claiming to offer help to people in need. We will not allow firms to profit from debt advice which puts their customers at risk of harm.”

The five firms that applied for voluntary requirements to be imposed are: Assist UK Group, Two Financial Services, Consumer Money Worries, Faith Financial Solutions, and Debt Help. The firm whose permission to provide advice was removed is Action On CIO.

Contributor

Rupert Jones

The GuardianTramp

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