Simon Read: Information is power. And it's in the wrong hands when people are cold-called by companies that know they're in debt


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The Independent Online

In debt? You're likely to be targeted by unscrupulous companies that hope to profit from your misfortune. They may try to pretend to be your friend by offering what they call "help" – but almost certainly that help will come with a cost and leave you worse off than you were before they got in touch.

I've written about such companies many times in the past, but this week I came across a business that angered me more than any other. It sells lists. So far, so ordinary. There are lots of marketing agencies flogging lists of people. How do you think firms know to target you with their products unless they buy lists of those who have used those products in the past and may be tempted to do so in the future.

As far as I'm concerned, I have no problem being targeted by a firm that may be selling something I want to buy. If I'm not interested, I simply delete their email or throw away their mailing.

But the firm I had the misfortune to encounter this week is far more pernicious, I reckon. Why? Because it flogs people's details to companies that can cold-call them. The company's website is full of offers of lists of names and addresses of, for instance, people who may be looking to transfer their pension or who may feel they have been mis-sold payment protection insurance. There is also an offer of details of people who may have a personal injury claim.

Are you recognising a pattern here? The above three are the main subjects of the millions of unwanted and annoying spam texts and phone calls that Britons are bombarded with each year. If you've ever wondered how the spammers get your details, they've probably been sold them by firms like Get Fat Marketing – the name of the company I had the misfortune to discover this week.

But all that loathsome activity isn't what really made my gorge rise. That was when I clicked on the Manchester-based firm's debt page. There I saw that the company promises a list of "10,000 individuals all in considerable debt and looking for debt advice".

The details on offer – for just £500 – included full name and address, landline and mobile numbers and, shockingly, the amount of debt they were in. In other words, it's flogging what should be personal details of struggling people, right down to the amount they owe.

All sorts of unscrupulous businesses could make mischief with that information. I shudder to think how much more miserable they could make the lives of what may already be desperate people. I find it totally unpalatable that such an unattractive trade in people's misery is allowed to go on.

I talked it over with Joanna Elson – chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, the charity that runs National Debtline – who has expressed concern about such activities in the past. She told me: "This is a horrendous example of the business practices of an invisible industry doing immense harm to consumers.

"The sale of data between lead-generation firms and profit-driven debt-management companies means that people in financial difficulty are being bombarded with calls and texts, often for years.

"This kind of marketing only serves to make an already stressful situation more difficult, and can lead to financial problems becoming much worse thanks to the high fees and charges that these companies impose," Me Elson added.

She said she would like to see the Financial Conduct Authority step in to regulate the murky activity directly, including considering an outright ban on the purchase of data concerning people in financial difficulty.

I agree. And I'm shocked that the City regulator isn't already all over this activity and stopping firms profiting by flogging the details – including debts owed – of struggling people. Anything that adds to their distress – as these firms undoubtedly do – and increases their financial woes, as can happen, should be outlawed.

twitter: @simonnread

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