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‘Imposter firms’ are posing as financial support. Here’s how to spot them.

If you’re ever looking for debt advice – or know someone who is going to – make sure you’re talking to a legitimate debt advice organisation and not an imposter firm

When you need help with debt from an organisation like StepChange, as many have done during the pandemic, you should feel confident that the organisation you’re speaking to is genuine. Sadly, there are a number of ‘imposter firms’ who use altered versions of our name (e.g. ‘Step to Change’ or ‘Step Changing’) and others’ to convince people they’re genuine debt advice services.

These firms are not genuine. The Advertising Standards Authority has recently issued judgments on some, and the Financial Conduct Authority regularly updates its list of “clone firms” impersonating legitimate, regulated debt charities like StepChange.

These are scams, and here’s how you can identify and avoid them.

What is an Imposter Firm?

Imposter firms are organisations that imitate real, trustworthy companies or charities. They’re set up to trick you into giving your data or money, and then refer you on to another company who may do your finances further harm.

Imposter firm links often appear at the very top of a search engine results page or in adverts on social media, paying money to grab your attention. They often use names close to a legitimate organisation to make you think it’s them. 

You can spot whether you’re looking at an advert, rather than the ‘organic’ search results, by the “Ad” symbol in the top right of the search listing. It doesn’t mean that website isn’t genuine, but it does mean you should scroll down to see what the top, non-advert listing is, to find the likely legitimate site.

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What are the telltale signs I’m on an imposter site?

If you’re looking for help from us, but aren’t sure if you’ve reached the right place, then there are a few quick checks you can do to make sure you’ve found the real site.

Firstly, check their URL: Does it match the one given out elsewhere? Then, check the logo – many firms won’t have access to an organisation’s proper logo, and will use something else, or a distorted version. These are two potential red flags.

Finally, take a look around the website itself. Do they provide full contact information? Are they registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)? They’ll also probably use phrases like ‘Government-backed debt advice scheme to write off your debts’? Legitimate debt advice charities don’t use phrases like this.

If you’re looking for a debt advice charity, it will be regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and will list its authorisation number – you can check onthe Financial Services Register to be sure. If there are any alarm bells ringing, then it’s possible you’re on an imposter firm’s website.

Where does the scam lead?

For people who give their details to an imposter firm, they’ll likely be sold on. These imposter firms operate as lead generators (people who search out potential customers for other companies and get paid in return). Yet people may not even realise they aren’t dealing with a real debt advice charity until much later.

The first problem is that this may end up with you getting poor quality advice, or paying for a service that you could have got free of charge, or both.

Secondly, you may end up being sent to a company primarily dealing in Individual Voluntary Arrangements (IVA). An IVA is a type of debt solution that is a formal and legally binding agreement between an individual and the creditor. While they can be an excellent solution for the right people (and StepChange recommends them to some clients), they are not suitable for everyone, so you should get proper advice about which solution is best for you. IVAs have risks attached to them, and if they fail they can leave you in worse financial position than you started.

With some IVA providers, a concern is whether they are acting more in their own interests than their clients’. Because the payments into an IVA will include fairly significant fees for administering the IVA, some seemingly maximise the numbers they sign up, whether right for a person’s situation or not. We get a stream of reports from people who thought they were dealing with StepChange only to receive a hard sell for an IVA and become suspicious – at which point it becomes clear that they have been in contact with imposter firm.

The costs of falling for an imposter firms are something many can’t afford to pay – especially when struggling with problem debt. The moment someone searches for debt advice is a big step in their journey to becoming debt free, but being fooled by an imposter firm can send people straight back to square one – or worse.

So please, if you’re ever looking for debt advice – or know someone who is going to – help us beat the imposter firms and make sure you’re talking to a legitimate debt advice organisation. As far as StepChange goes, if it isn’t stepchange.org, then it isn’t us.

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