OFT writes to 240 payday lenders to warn them over poor practices

The legal loan sharks have been cautioned.

After publishing further guidance on debt collection, the Office for Fair Trading (OFT) has now written to all 240 payday lenders operating in the UK after starting an investigation in February 2012 to investigate how lenders carry out debt repayments after it was revealed there were "emerging concerns" over poor practice. 

The guidance by the OFT clarifies what is expected when using continuous payment authority (a method of payment via debit or credit card to a company one wishes to make regular payments to) to recover debts, and it is high time guidance was clear on this issue.

Many companies have been found to use tactics that could very well be described as bullying and intimidation. Even well-known lenders like Wonga were warned by the OFT to stop sending letters to its customers accusing them of committing fraud

The worst example of debt recovery from a payday lender I have heard of is from the company CIM Technologies Ltd, also known as Tooth Fairy Finance. Action was taken on them by the OFT in 2010 to stop them from taking advantage of continuous payment authority but varying the repayment dates for loans taken out and the amount payable on each installment.

On a post written up on the Credit Action Group forum, one member writes what it was like being a customer of Tooth Fairy. After taking out a loan of £100, failing to meet a payment and having requests of an extended payback period fall on deaf ears, the person alleges that Tooth Fairy then decided to:

  • [Call] my home number on a daily basis leaving information regarding who they are and my private account with them, that is that I have an outstanding loan and how much it was for, leaving the information open to third parties.
  • [Send] me various emails each day telling me that they are adding fines to my loan.
  • [Threaten] me with bailiffs and bankruptcy – for a £100 loan? I don’t think so. They also said they would send bailiffs to all known addresses to collect goods up to nine times the value of the debt.
  • [Tell] me they have passed my file to a solicitor and they are charging me £150 for this to be done. I have not heard from any solicitor or any debt collection agency (West Yorkshire Security Debt Collections) whom they say they have also consulted with.

Another post on the group claims that the borrower would hear nothing from the company for weeks, even while charges were still clocking up, and that Tooth Fairy avoided going through normal procedures of lateness charges or debt plans.

But better debt collection methods is just one element of the wider concern about how the payday lending industry is regulated.

David Fisher, director of consumer credit at the OFT, said earlier this year that he hoped the Financial Conduct Authority (or FCA – which will eventually replace the OFT in responsibility of consumer credit regulation) would bring the prospect of greater regulation, as at present there is “a very light-touch regime”. 

Though even getting close to this is proving problematic as efforts are still being made to add an amendment on the Financial Services Bill to give the FCA power to cap the total cost of credit. Until such regulatory common sense is considered then lenders will still have free terrain over vulnerable consumers. 

Update

A representative of Web Loans Processing, the parent company of Toothfairy Finance, has asked us to clarify a couple of points in the article. We are happy to do so, and to note that the Financial Ombudsman has not ruled against Toothfairy with regards to any non-paying clients:

The Article makes comments regarding bailiffs, solicitors, added fees and regular contact with customers via email and phone; a little research would have quickly identified all this as standard practice when bailiffs are recovering debt, even for high street banks.

Further, maintaining regular and consistent contact with clients is a requirement of any credit licence. Toothfairy Finance works with its customers and we are happy to discuss any questions or issues they may have. For direct help, please email us.

 
A shark. Not a loan shark. Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.
 

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.