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Dodgy debt advice ads banned by advertising watchdog

Written by: Emma Lunn
Seven issues were investigated, and six upheld, by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) regarding three paid-for search ads and a website for National Debt Service.

The regulator told Financial Support Systems, trading as National Debt Service, to ensure future adverts didn’t suggest an affiliation with National Debtline or endorsement by the UK government.

It also warned the company that any testimonials it used in its advertising should be genuine and that a warning that fees were payable for debt solutions should be sufficiently prominent.

The ASA investigated the National Debt Service ads after a complaint by The Money and Pensions Service (MaPS) raised seven issues.

MaPS challenged whether the trading name ‘National Debt Service’ misleadingly suggested an affiliation with National Debtline which is a debt advice charity run by the Money Advice Trust.

MaPS also claimed that the words ‘government approved’ in one of the ads suggested that National Debt Service had been approved by the government – when in fact it was the individual voluntary arrangement (IVA) solution that was government approved.

It also raised concerns that the positioning of the Money Advice Service and Insolvency Service logos in another of the ads suggested National Debt Service was endorsed by those organisations.

Other issues included the ads’ suggestion that people declare bankruptcy without any assessment of the debtor’s circumstances, claims that 80% of debts could be written off, and the speed at which creditor phone calls could be stopped.

The ASA itself challenged whether testimonials used in one of the ads were genuine after discovering that photographs of two people who’d supposedly used National Debt Service were stock photographs used on other websites. The regulator also challenged whether a warning that fees were payable was sufficiently prominent in one of the ads.

In response, Financial Support Systems denied that it was trying to affiliate or associate itself with National Debtline, explaining that its website colour schemes and branding were different. It also explained that ‘government approved’ referred to the debt solution offered, not the company, but said it would bear the concern in mind for the future.

The company said that debtors could only enter a debt solution after a full assessment of their personal and financial circumstances. It also claimed its fees warning was sufficiently prominent, but the ASA ruled that “We considered that the warning that fees were payable was not sufficiently prominent. We therefore concluded that the ad was misleading.”

Caroline Siarkiewicz, chief executive at the Money and Pensions Service, said: “This latest ruling from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is a welcome development for those struggling with debt. This type of advertising has the potential to refer people to a debt solution that may not be suitable for their circumstances and lead to further problems down the line.

“We know that people struggling to keep on top of bills and payments can often feel overwhelmed, and so it’s really important that people know that free impartial debt advice is available, and where they can find debt solutions that are right for them and tailored to their individual circumstances.

“Free debt advice can be life-changing – our research shows that 63% of people with debts are reducing or clearing them within three to six months after receiving free impartial debt advice. Anyone who is worried about their money situation can visit the Debt Advice Locator Tool on our MoneyHelper website to find free high quality debt advice to help get back their finances back on track.”

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