How to deal with debt Reasons to avoid debt management firms
Commercial debt management companies (DMC) have a bad reputation. And rightly so in many cases. There are 10 good reasons why you should avoid paying for debt advice from one of these companies.
- Poor advice: Of the OFT’s 148 visits to debt management firms, just 12 complied with OFT guidance and the Consumer Credit Act, with frontline advisers ‘providing consumers with poor advice based on inadequate information’. The OFT concluded that DMCs ‘are not offering the solution that is in the best interests of the consumer, but instead that which is most profitable to them’.
- High fees and charges: Consumers’ fees for commercial debt management services exceed £250m a year. Monthly debt management plan (DMP) fees are typically about 17% of the repayment, though many DMCs impose a minimum monthly fee of about £30, so the percentage paid by low repayers is even higher.
- Front-loading: About three quarters of DMCs front-load their fees. This means the company recoups most or all of its fees in the first months of the plan, with some imposing a minimum upfront fee of several hundred pounds. In most cases, creditors receive nothing for at least the first two months, pushing the debtor further into arrears.
- Flipping: About eight in 10 people entering an IVA have already been through at least one other debt solution. Having already received front-loaded fees for a debt management plan, flipping a customer into an IVA could help a debt company maximise its profits.
- Poor advice from banks: The Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) has received complaints from consumers struggling with debt whose bank has suggested they call a commercial DMC. Which? thinks this practice is unethical and that banks should only be pointing customers towards free alternatives such as the CCCS.
Unregulated service: Debt management firms must hold a consumer credit license, issued by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). However, the debt management market is current unregulated. Steve Johnson, chief executive of AdviceUK, commented: ‘The capacity of fee-charging debt management companies to profit from people in already desperate circumstances makes this an area of business where assured ethical standards are essential. Unfortunately, the recent OFT findings show beyond doubt that statutory regulation is needed.’
- Price comparison sites: Some price comparison websites, including Moneysupermarket.com highlight commercial ‘partner’ DMCs rather than free alternatives. Which? believes debt solutions are an inappropriate product to feature on a price comparison site.
Commission-led sales: Many DMCs pay financial advisers hundreds of pounds for leads. The OFT also received anecdotal evidence of inappropriate incentivisation of DMC staff. If staff are rewarded for the number of consumers they sign up to a particular debt solution, the risk of mis-selling is significant.
- Cross-selling: Some DMCs are part of a group that offers other services, such as loans, PPI and bank charge mis-selling claims and utility cost reduction. Details of unsuccessful applicants for a loan, for example, may be passed to the debt management arm, while DMP customers are cross-sold other services, such as a current account with a monthly fee. There is no need to take out these accounts – most major banks offer a free basic bank account with no credit facility.
- Risk to your repayments: Many DMCs have gone bust in recent years. In its review, the OFT found evidence that some DMCs were either failing to pass on payments to creditors within five working days or not keeping customers’ money in a separate client account. The collapse of the DMC could lead to the consumer’s money being lost.