Lord Chancellor to warn on 'credit repair' claims: Sue Fieldman looks into the business of clearing unwanted entries from credit reference files

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The Independent Online
THE Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, will next week warn consumers to be wary of advertisements from companies that claim they can remove county court judgments from the files of credit reference agencies.

His department has already alerted the courts to the techniques employed by 'credit repair bureaux' - firms that claim they can wipe clean adverse credit entries.

The Lord Chancellor is 'taking the matter very seriously indeed' and will be taking the unusual step of warning consumers to be wary of the advertising material sent out by these companies.

This is the second warning this year. The first came from the Office of Fair Trading, which said: 'It is not as easy to beat the system as these advertisements suggest.'

Thousands of people have county court judgments registered against them , which stop them getting credit.

Advertisements that claim to be able to remove these damaging entries from the files held by credit reference agencies are, therefore, extremely beguiling.

However, before sending off any money, people should be aware that the number of entries that can be successfully removed from the registers is minimal, compared with the number of judgments on record. And if your case does qualify, you can apply to get the entry removed for free, without having to pay substantial charges to credit repair bureaux or brokers.

If you have a county court judgement against you, it will be on your file at the credit reference agencies. There are only three ways legally that the entry can subsequently be removed.

If you pay the judgment within 28 days you can pay pounds 1 and ask the court that the entry be cancelled. After six years it will be removed in any event. You can also apply for a judgment to be set aside in certain circumstances.

Paul Mudge, chief executive of the Registry of County Court Judgments, said: 'You can apply to the court to set aside a judgment and it will not cost you a penny. But you can only set aside if you can show that the judgment should not have been made in the first place - for example, if you never received the summons, or the plaintiff who sued you found he had the money in another account. The number of successful set asides is small compared with the number of judgments.'

John Saunders, a spokesman for CCN, the largest credit reference agency, said that it was 'very rare to get a set aside after the 28-day period as you will have to convince the court that there has been some kind of mistake.'

A number of organisations claim to be credit repair firms. This week one, CC Services, of north-west London, is advertising in a national newspaper. The advertisment says that the firm can get judgments 'legally removed in most cases'.

If a private individual answers the advertisement, the firm writes back with details of a total fee per judgment of pounds 250, of which pounds 125 is payable immediately, for the firm to make an application to remove the entry, regardless of whether it is successful. There is a further pounds 125 to be paid after the county court judgment has been cancelled.

If a broker answers the advertisement on behalf of a client there is no pre-payment, and the fee of pounds 250 only has to be sent when the entry is cancelled.

The client must have already paid the judgment, or have sufficient funds to settle it. He or she must also let the firm know if there are any 'unusual circumstances'. The letter is signed by a Mr L Blower.

We asked Mr Blower whether he thought a total fee of pounds 250 was excessive. He said it was too cheap. 'Just to get one judgment removed, we could end up writing 20 letters and spending four or five hours on the telephone. With some of them we end up out of pocket.

'People can do it themselves but it is a matter of getting it done correctly. Even solicitors come on to us and ask us what to do.'

Credit repair bureaux frequently try to get the judgments removed by contacting the plaintiff (the person who sued), and trying to get them to consent to the judgment being withdrawn. They then apply to the court for a set-aside.

Mr Blower was aware that the courts were tightening up on set-asides, but he was adamant that his success rate was very high, that he could show us, in confidence, his files which would support this claim, and that what he was doing was perfectly within the law.

He also said that he stressed to everyone that there was no 100 per cent guarantee of success.

Meanwhile, the OFT has a free booklet, 'No Credit', which explains how to correct information held by credit reference agencies.

And remember, if you have paid the judgement in full after the 28-day period you can get a certificate of satisfaction, which will be noted on your file next to the judgment so that a lender can see that the debt has been paid.

(Photographs omitted)

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