Page last updated at 23:01 GMT, Friday, 5 June 2009 00:01 UK

Ministry warns on debt write-offs

By Brian Milligan
Business reporter, BBC News

Steve Sharrock
Mr Sharrock says he paid a fee but received no service

The Ministry of Justice has warned consumers about the dangers of trying to get debts written off.

They say hundreds of claims management companies are charging large up-front fees, and making misleading claims about the chances of success.

Steve Sharrock, an oil engineer from Manchester, received a phone call from one such company, out of the blue.

They told him there was a 99.9% chance that they could get his credit card debts written off entirely.

This was because the credit card companies may have made mistakes in the paperwork which would breach the Consumer Credit Act.

'Con'

But after paying an upfront fee of £275, Mr Sharrock never heard from the company again.

"It's just a scam," he told the BBC.

If there is a genuine issue about debt, the right thing is to talk to your lender first, not to find some other way of wiping your debt
Kevin Rousell, Ministry of Justice

"They're obviously only concerned about getting money off you as quickly as they can. It's a con."

The company that approached Mr Sharrock wasn't licensed by the Ministry of Justice.

But even amongst more legitimate claims companies, consumer groups say the assertions they make in their adverts are often misleading.

Typically one company claims on its website that "80% of all credit agreements may be unenforceable".

In other words, the chances of getting your debts written off are high.

'Talk to lender'

But the Citizens Advice Bureau believes such figures are completely unrealistic.

Sue Edwards, the CAB's head of consumer policy, says the chances of getting any debts written off in this way are "probably quite slim."

The Ministry of Justice has already issued two warnings about such claims. But with new companies springing up every week, the ministry is struggling to keep up with them.

Kevin Rousell from the ministry suggests consumers should never pay any money up front, and they should find other ways of getting rid of debt

"If there is a genuine issue about debt, the right thing is to talk to your lender first, not to find some other way of wiping your debt," he said.

The Ministry now has a team of 34 enforcement officers in the Midlands, including five new recruits. Their job is to crack down on misleading claims, and, if necessary, remove operating licences.

'Angry'

But it isn't only people with credit card debt who are being targeted by the claims companies.

Denise Silverstein, from north London, was surprised to receive a phone call in April, from a company offering to wipe her mortgage debt of £3,000. In fact she had paid off the mortgage some time ago.

She was asked to pay £50 up front, but "found out at a later stage that they would take another 20%".

She was also upset that she and her husband had been cold-called, on an ex-directory number.

"I feel very angry," she added.

A judge at Chester Crown Court has estimated that as many as 100,000 people may now be trying to get their debts written off via the courts. So even if some of them are eventually successful, it will take a long time for their cases to be proven.



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