Office of Fair Trading
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OFT seeks closure of 'look alike' debt advice websites
The OFT has told 11 financial management businesses with 'look alike' websites posing as official or charity advice sites to close them down immediately, and is warning consumers to take care when searching for debt advice online.
The sites use similar or slightly amended domain names which imply that they are affiliated to organisations such as Citizens Advice, Advice UK, National Debtline or the Consumer Credit Counselling Service. Some of the website names also imply that they have some official status or sanction from the Government.
Parts of the content of these 'look alike' websites are often copied from legitimate sites offering free advice, despite the companies involved charging fees.
The OFT has told the companies to stop using the trading names immediately and for those companies who were trading without a licence to stop trading completely or face prosecution. The OFT is also working closely with internet service providers to ensure that the websites are taken down promptly.
The action followed complaints from a number of debt advice charities including Citizens Advice.
Consumers are advised to take particular care when searching for
terms such as 'citizens advice' or 'government
advice' to ensure that they are dealing with a genuine
charity-based help and advice service. Consumers should also be
careful not to deal with traders who are unlicensed.
Most businesses that offer credit or lend money, including those that offer advice on debt, must be licensed by the OFT and they must notify the OFT of all the trading names they intend to use. Trading names should not be misleading or otherwise undesirable. Failure to comply with an OFT warning can result in a business being subject to licensing action or criminal prosecution for unlicensed trading.
Ray Watson, OFT Director for Consumer Credit said:
'The OFT will take action against businesses that use 'look alike' websites to mislead consumers into believing they are dealing with established charitable and not-for-profit organisations.
'Consumers are also reminded that they should not deal with any company that does not have a consumer credit licence. These unlicensed businesses are unregulated and consumers may have no means of redress if things go wrong'.
Consumers can check whether a business holds an appropriate consumer credit licence by searching the OFT consumer credit register at http://www.oft.gov.uk/consumercreditregister.
1. The Consumer Credit Act 1974 requires most businesses that offer goods or services on credit or for hire, lend money to consumers, or offer debt counselling or debt adjusting services, to be licensed by the OFT. For more information go to:http://www.oft.gov.uk/advice_and_resources/resource_base/credit-licence/applying
2. It is a criminal offence to carry out any activity that requires a consumer credit licence before a licence has been issued. If a trader has a licence, it is an offence to carry out any licensable activities that are not covered by that licence or engage in licensable activities using a trading name that does not appear on the licence.
3. Consumer credit licence holders are required to notify the OFT of all names that they intend to trade under. It is an offence for a licensee to carry out business under a name not specified on the licence. The OFT will not issue a trading name for a licence unless it is satisfied that the name or names are not misleading or otherwise undesirable.
4. The OFT published guidance for debt management companies in 2001 which applies to all those providing financial management services including IVAs, personal bankruptcy and commercial credit repair. It sets out minimum standards of behaviour expected of licence holders engaging in the provision of debt management services, which seek to re-schedule customers' repayment of debt and charge for doing so. A key principle of the Guidance is the requirement to act in the best interests of the consumer. The Guidance also states that advertisements and other promotional material must be accurate and clear and must not mislead, either expressly or by implication or omission.
5. The OFT is not able to name the 11 companies warned about misleading websites because of disclosure restrictions under Part 9 of the Enterprise Act 2002.
6. Customers of unlicensed traders are not covered by the alternative dispute resolution scheme operated by the Financial Ombudsman Service which only extends to those businesses who hold a consumer credit licence.
7. Some genuine websites of not-for-profit debt advice
* Citizens Advice Bureaux (http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk)
* Advice UK (http://www.adviceuk.org.uk)
* National Debtline (http://www.nationaldebtline.co.uk)
* Consumer Credit Counselling Service (http://www.cccs.co.uk)
* Parents, Pennies and Pounds (http://www.moneystuff.co.uk)
PUBLIC enquiries: 0845 7224499 email@example.com
OFT reports and consumer information leaflets are available free from:
OFT, PO Box 366, Hayes UB3 1XB 0870 6060321 firstname.lastname@example.org