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Wednesday, 10 October, 2001, 17:15 GMT 18:15 UK
Tricksters target government scheme
Individual Learning Account logo
ILAs offer discounts on educational courses
Sarah Toyne

Thousands of people have been tricked by a scam involving a flagship initiative of the UK government.

The police are now investigating the abuse of Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs), which offer discounts of up to 200 for adult learners.


The scheme needs to be tightened up so that the basic rights of the individual are maintained and they can make the decision where to allocate their money

Tony Northcott
Trading Standards Institute
Tricksters operating on the street and door-to-door have been convincing people to sign-up for courses which turn out to be either "bogus" or worth substantially less than the 200 discount.

The companies, however, claim the full amount of money from the government.

The Department for Education and Skills, which is responsible for the flagship scheme, is now carrying out a major overhaul of its procedures, and has asked all companies to re-register.

Nationwide problem

The take-up of ILAs has been popular. By July, about 1.2 million people had taken out ILAs, with 800,000 using money on courses.

The Trading Standards Institute, which highlighted the problem, said that it was a "massive scam", but impossible to know how much money had been taken.

However, it said that thousands of people had been affected.

Incidences have been reported as far afield as Warwickshire, Hampshire, Somerset, London and the Isle of Wight.

Easily tricked

The government is committed to lifelong learning, and ILAs were introduced to help adults who wanted to acquire extra skills.

But people are now being warned to check out the course provider before signing up for any course - especially those which involve distance learning.

One common scam has involved offering a computer course, but sending only a textbook worth 6.99, even though learners had signed away their 200 discount.

People have been tricked in their homes through cold-calling and doorstep selling, along with unsolicited e-mails.

As well as using trickery to gain individuals' account money, these companies have been forging people's signatures to swindle their ILA grant.

Victim

In one case, Teresa David of Leamington Spa signed up for an allegedly free computer course, only to be conned out of 150 of her 200 government grant entitlement by a doorstep seller.

Teresa discovered 150 of her and her daughter's entitlements had been paid into the company's account, but these amounts were refunded after Teresa threatened action through her local Trading Standards Service.

She said: "Many people living in my area have fallen victim to this scam, however, most are unaware of it.

"This company is pretending to be Government-backed however it is just using that as a chance to get hold of the government's money - money that could be spent on genuine education and courses."

Widespread scheme

According to trading standards officers, the scam originated in Warwickshire.

A spokesperson for Trading Standards in Warwickshire said: "We believe that many of the courses which are being offered to Warwickshire consumers on the doorstep do not represent real learning opportunities, and that those who sign up do not always fully benefit from the funds available in their ILA accounts.

DFES is now issuing a leaflet for learners advising them on the factors to consider before choosing to use their ILA, including checking the credentials of the provider and the quality and suitability of their chosen course before they commit.

"We are working our way through the complaints we have received so far in priority order, embarking on a round of audit visits to those providers about whom we have major concerns, to satisfy ourselves they are marketing and operating the programme correctly.

"Where we find they are not we remove them from the list of registered providers," said a spokesman.

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