It all started with a phone call. I'm quite used to cold callers by now, as most of us are, having been approached about everything from PPI compensation (who hasn't?), voluntary bankruptcy, "a recent road traffic accident", and, a bit of a collector's item this, compensation for loss of hearing through working in heavy industry.
All follow a pattern I am sure is familiar: an official-sounding but bogus "company" name; a fairly clumsy attempt to pass themselves off as being connected with a proper business you will have heard of, such as your car insurer; the fishing for personal details; the transparently false assurance that they just want to check details; the persistence, and the final offer to send some information with no obligation.
All the cold callers are, painfully, obviously driven by their pitiful bonuses to try to mug as many punters as possible – "leads" for their own clients. So it's very welcome that under new plans published this week the Information Commissioner will be able to take stern action when a complaint is received. But that may be too late. The firms should first have to obtain a licence and be bound by rules before they start calling.
Last week I received a call that was much more sinister than normal, if predictable enough in its own way. Yes, someone wants to get their hands on my pension, now that the Department for Work and Pensions say we can move it around and cash in a bit more then we used to be able to. This is a much more dangerous game. The call went like this. Cheerfully, I was offered a "free assessment" of my pension provision – having fished around to find out if I have in fact got any private pensions (if you're only going to get a state pension obviously they don't want to help you out). If you foolishly agree to having strangers from a firm you've never heard of ferreting around in one of your most private and valuable assets, with a view to stealing some of it, they will then courier round a document that confirms the details you've given and, crucially, allows them to persuade you personally to sign a letter of authorisation, so they can ferret away apparently with our consent. They tell you this is because so much of their stuff gets lost by the Royal Mail; that is rubbish. In reality (after a little persistent questioning on my part) it becomes apparent that they do it this way so that the courier can pressure you into signing there and then without consulting your family or proper financial advisers – or indeed your pension provider.
What happens then? I dread to imagine. I would think you will indeed be given an "assessment" recommending you move your pension pot to one or more of their clients, in which case they will get a fat, undisclosed fee, and you may well end up with much worse performance and/or higher charges than you had before. They might even fool you into swapping a final salary pension for some duff annuity.
That's the warning. Yet I wonder why are these cold callers, as they freely admit, not registered, regulated or otherwise officially sanctioned? Are they regulated if they pretend to be or act as financial advisers? Who will be liable when it all goes wrong? What price will be paid by the state when the defrauded pensioners have to fall back on benefits, having lost their security in old age to legally sanctioned theft?
All questions for the current pensions minister Steve Webb, sure – but also for his successors in five, ten, twenty years' time when this fraud really starts to work its way through the system.
It will happen. Older people have enough to contend with without this additional attack on their security. They don't like putting the phone down, they are maybe not as sharp as they once were, and can quite easily be bullied by some "courier" on their doorstep (no independent witness apparently required). The pickings for the vultures are substantial. I am much in favour of Mr Webb's reforms, but I do worry about how they will turn out.
Now I am waiting for a call back with further details of the wonderful service the cold callers provide. This is to continue my tale; I have no intention of signing up though, and I do have a rather sinking feeling that not everyone will be as impervious to their bullying ways as I have, so far, been. After various sorry episodes – Maxwell, Equitable Life, misselling of personal pensions, hidden charges, "zombie" funds and routine poor performance – the UK has an abysmal record in pensions, one reason why so many of us just put our faith in our homes and hope for the best. But if you think confidence in the pensions industry couldn't sink any lower, just wait until cold callers really start recruiting their "prospects". Please don't be one of them. Aviva, the Pru and all other responsible firms need to act on this before their entire business is tainted by this scandal.
I await the next call from a pensions boiler room with great interest, and no little trepidation.