Ring of dishonesty as scam firms target mobiles

Unsolicited calls offering to make or save you money are on the rise, with some firms blatantly dishonest, says Jane Bradley

Whether it is unsolicited marketing calls to home phones or scam messages to email inboxes, it seems that in this world of technology you have to be constantly on your guard to ensure you are not being tricked into parting with cash.

But now mobile phone users are being plagued with daily text messages from firms promising to save them money – with some claiming to know personal information about the consumer.

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A large proportion of the messages are from pay-day loan and debt management companies – while some offer to help the consumer claw back money they may have spent on mis-sold personal protection insurance. Others claim to know that the person receiving the message has previously had a car accident and tells them how much compensation they are owed.

In almost all cases, these companies will charge large amounts of money to carry out the service they are offering – and in the worst case scenario they are out to trick the mobile phone user into handing over money for a service which does not exist.

Although sending unsolicited text messages is actually illegal – consumers have to “opt in” to receive any kind of written message from companies – the practice has increased sharply in recent months.

“With so many people struggling to make ends meet, we are concerned about the way some companies advertise – particularly those who offer loans and ‘deals’ which aren’t all they seem,” says Susan McPhee, head of policy at Citizens Advice Scotland. “It’s vital that consumers have all the information they need about such offers to make a decision, and that includes information about interest rates and details of how much they will have to repay and when. And it’s not always possible to get all that into a text message.

“Our advice to anyone who is tempted to take out any kind of loan is to shop around and get the right deal. Don’t just take the first one that comes your way. Citizens Advice Bureaux advisers see case after case of people who took out a high-interest loan and are now drowning in debt because of it. The best way to avoid that misery is to give these sort of options a miss – tempting though they can be.”

The Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS) has recently launched a campaign to stop people being scammed by similar text messages.

“Before Christmas, someone told us they had been sent a message for a pay-day loan and we thought it was irresponsible that at that time of year, when people are trying to keep within a budget, that they are out of the blue being offered money,” explains Una Farrell, spokeswoman for the CCCS. “And it turned out to be a big problem.”

The organisation asked their Twitter followers to let them know if they had received similar texts and were inundated with hundreds of responses in just a few days.

“For people who are in a vulnerable situation this is very cynical,” says Ms Farrell. “There are a lot of people out there at the moment who are in a situation where they are desperate for help to pay off their debts and clutch at straws of anyone who is offering to help them. But what they don’t realise is that these companies charge you a lot to do so – at a time when you haven’t got any money.”

Although registering for the free Telephone Preference Service (TPS) can stop companies making voice marketing calls to mobile numbers it is unable to block companies from sending texts, as legislation already bans them from doing so.

“You shouldn’t receive these texts if you have not given prior consent, as they are sent unlawfully,” explains Scott Flower, manager of the TPS. “Therefore there is no preference service you can join as you are assumed to have opted out. However, people are still being sent these messages and we would advise people that if they receive an unsolicited message and they know who it is from, to report it to the Information Commissioner’s Office.”

A statement on the TPS website explains that it cannot prevent the receipt of text messages and advises people to send an “opt-out” request to the company involved.

But others believe that replying to these messages could make the problem even worse.

“It allows these companies to realise that your mobile number is active,” adds Ms Farrell.

Marketing companies can buy up data from other firms which gives them access to huge swathes of telephone numbers – both mobiles and landlines.

Some mobile phone customers report that they are targeted by companies after giving out their mobile details online.