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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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times