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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.