Page last updated at 05:19 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Rise in debt collector 'mistakes'

By Jenny Hill
BBC News

Gareth Thomas
It is predicted the CSA will try to locate 15m people this year

The government is to hold talks after it emerged a growing number of people are being wrongly pursued by debt collectors, the BBC has learned.

Consumer Minister Gareth Thomas is to meet representatives of the debt collection industry.

It is feared the numbers targeted will rise as the recession deepens.

The Credit Services Association says cases of mistaken identity will continue while it does not have access to the full electoral register.

Mr Thomas is due to meet representatives of the debt collection industry next week, but it has emerged high-level talks will be held on Wednesday to discuss concerns that the problem is getting worse.

'Constant phonecalls'

"I am increasingly concerned about some of the practices that we are hearing about used by debt collection agencies," he said.

"There is often psychological harassment effectively; constant phonecalls, in some of the worst cases we've seen neighbours contacted, people's work phoned."

It is not known how many innocent consumers are being targeted but even debt collectors are worried and say numbers are likely to rise as the recession deepens.

Trying to locate a debtor is known in the industry as a 'trace.' This is controlled by guidelines which ban, for example, so-called "fishing trips" - where collectors contact people with a similar name to the genuine debtor.

Shahida Perween has received letter after letter from collection agencies

It is also illegal to harass consumers but the BBC has seen evidence of both.

Already, the body which represents collectors has reported a massive increase in the number of debtors it tries to trace every year.

Two years ago the credit services authority tried to locate one million people. Last year that rose to eight million, and it is predicted that will rise to 15 million this year.

Inevitably, it points out, some of those traces will target the wrong people.

Shahida Perween is one of them. She has no debt but has received letter after letter from collection agencies demanding money and threatening legal action.

She said: "I've not been happy at all because I've got children and, with letters like this coming and demanding payments, it's frightening because you think the next knock on the door might be someone coming to repossess."

Debt collectors left another woman so frightened she took her own life.

Beryl Brazier's family say the grandmother was too embarrassed to tell them about letters which claimed - wrongly - that she owed thousands of pounds.

They claim she even tried to pay some of the "debt" off using half of her life savings. Mrs Brazier drowned herself in 2007.

'Joined-up action'

The Credit Services Association say cases of mistaken identity like these will continue because it only has access to an edited version of the electoral roll.

There are government proposals to take that access away altogether. This, the association claims, will exacerbate the situation and it wants ministers to allow full access to the roll.

It is also calling for a national address register, which would make it a criminal offence for a debtor to move address without informing their creditors.

Godfrey Lancashire, a CSA director, said: "I wouldn't absolve us from all blame and, if we're going to do anything, we'll talk about it and we do take strong action.

"We do have teeth and a year ago - it's very rare - but a member was in breach of guidelines and we expelled them from our association and reported them to the Office of Fair Trading. So we do have teeth and we will take appropriate action, but it's got to be joined up.

"It's us, it's the OFT, it's the information commissioner, it's the financial ombudsman and it is the government doing something we recommend."

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