Exposing the ‘clone’ firms imitating genuine debt advice organisations
By Richard Lane, Director of External Affairs
StepChange is used to fighting battles - we’ve been doing it for years. We fight to get individuals a fairer deal, to support our clients where others have failed, and to try and make the changes needed to create a society free from problem debt.
But there’s one battle which we really shouldn’t have to be fighting.
Does something look off about this website?
That’s because despite using “Steps to change your debt problems” and calling the website “Step Debt Support,” this website has nothing to do with StepChange.
The same is true of 48 other websites we’ve had to work to take down this year — steptochange, stepdebtchange, stepdebtsupport, stepchanged, stepschange and many other varieties of our name we’ve seen.
For many searching for debt advice, these impostors are the first thing they see.
Every one of these has at one time appeared above the official StepChange website in Google’s search results. This means that for many searching for debt advice, these impostors are the first thing they see.
This isn’t just happening to StepChange either. Many of our partners across the sector have been experiencing these issues too.
Google do comply with our requests to have these adverts taken down. And they often do come down relatively quickly. But there is absolutely nothing to stop these companies from putting up another advert. And another. And another.
Why is this a problem?
The point at which an individual seeks debt advice is incredibly important. Our clients are often in desperate need of help — many are vulnerable — but these companies are steering people away from the impartial advice they need for financial gain.
When an individual engages with these impostors, they’re being directed away from the not-for-profit, comprehensive debt advice services they’re seeking and towards profit-making firms whose motivation is the commission they make when people get onto certain solutions.
But because they’re already in a complex and overwhelming situation, many don’t question these impostors, and end up taking up debt solutions which don’t work out for them. A few months later, and they finally reach the real StepChange, often with bigger debts than before.
It’s become a constant game of cat and mouse that has been going on for far too long, so we’ve decided to act.
For individuals to face this when they’re often at their most vulnerable is devastating. It should not be happening. It’s become a constant game of cat and mouse that has been going on for far too long, so we’ve decided to act.
We’ve decided to act
In the short term, we’ll continue to challenge and take down firms who are using our likeness. To do this, we’re going to work with debt advice services across the industry, as well as partners such as the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to help identify and take down these illegitimate copycats as and when they spring up.
We’d also like to work with Google and other search engines to figure out how we can improve their mechanisms for taking down impersonations. We’ve seen search engines remove payday lenders from paid search results in the past, so a precedent exists to suggest we can find an approach that works.
In the long term, we need to see stricter regulation that stops these clone firms from taking advantage of people in difficult situations. For this to happen we need to see the Treasury work with the FCA to consider the case for making introducing debt management and debt solutions a regulated activity. This will require legislation, so it’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re confident we can get it done.
For the moment though, we as an organisation, as well as friends and partners across the industry, are going to have to work together to raise awareness of these kinds of websites and try to guide those who need debt advice to the right places safely.
If we work together, it’s a battle we can win.