Commercial debt management firms are running Facebook ads that could make it appear they are linked to official government programs, a Guardian analysis has found.
debt management Businesses help people consolidate and restructure their debt by charging clients fees for a resolution or earning commissions for referring them to debt counselors.
Debt counseling organizations can arrange free management plans and other support. One such company, Stepchange, has called ads promoting debt-write-off programs with logos similar to the government crest, placed by Facebook pages called WiseoldMary and Mums In Debt, “deeply misleading.”
Another Facebook page called itself Debt Respite Scheme UK, as well name as a government program which offers 60 days of legal protection against creditors’ claims. Several Facebook pages also used Boris Johnson’s images to promote their services.
WiseoldMary and Debt Respite Scheme UK are “lead generators” for other companies and do not provide debt advice themselves, but do earn referral commissions in accordance with their privacy policies.
The cost of living crisis is likely to exacerbate the UK’s problem debt problem, with Citizens Advice warning in November that one in ten families faced serious financial difficulties this winter.
The Advertising Standards Authority 2020 reigns that a number of advertisements served by TFLI Limited, the operator of WiseoldMary, did not make sufficiently clear that they were passing on leads to third parties and that the potential fees and risks associated with the solutions offered were not clearly stated .
A spokesman for TFLI said internal processes had changed following the ICO and ASA rulings and that operating a loan broker did not prevent the company from helping people in debt.
The Facebook page and associated website for Debt Respite Scheme UK were taken down shortly after the Guardian requested comment from Trifik Ltd, which the website lists as data controller.
A spokesman for Trifik said: “The assets have been removed at the request of our client as unfortunately they are no longer traded.
“The Facebook Ads policies were followed when serving ads on behalf of our client and the website stated that it was an independent website working with regulated consultants.”
The Guardian analysis of data from Facebook’s advertising library found 35 pages advertising debt management services on Facebook, spending up to £100,000 a month in total.
The Guardian also found two companies promoting debt support while also operating loan brokers and payday loan companies. While not illegal, customers may not be aware that the companies that manage these sites are also credit intermediaries.
Debt Solvo, which offers customers “an easy and hassle-free way to finally solve this debt problem,” is a trading name of Nouveau Finance Limited, which operates a number of payday loan brokers. Payday SOS Loan, bizzy loan, and others owned by Nouveau Finance advertise an APR of up to 1721%.
WiseoldMary is a trading name of TFLI Limited which also operates a credit broker named “billig.de”. 2018 was the company £80,000 fine by the Information Commissioner’s Office for sending more than 1 million spam SMS.
A spokesman for Stepchange said: “It’s a real problem to find out which companies are really behind the ads. Often these companies are lead generators several miles away from the companies that could actually set up a product for the customer.
“If you give your personal information to one of these companies, you may not know where the information is going or who will then be contacting you about that solution.”
A number of the ads analyzed by the Guardian claimed customers could write off “up to 85%” of their debt. A spokesman for StepChange said: “It is clearly an advertising dangle – we believe it can be deeply misleading.”
A spokesman for TFLI Limited said: “We have consistently worked with the ASA to ensure all our adverts are clear and transparent.
“We make it clear to our clients that the average debt write-off with our service, based on actual data from our partners and from direct ASA advice, is 67%, although it is entirely possible to write off as much as 81%.
“As for your allegation that we imply direct affiliation with the government, we strongly deny that allegation. TFLI simply refers to the fact that IVAs are a result of government debt legislation.”
Mums in Debt and Nouveau Finance Limited did not respond to requests for comment.