Cold callers swindling vulnerable people in direct debit con, study reveals


Cold callers mis-selling appliance cover are conning vulnerable people into signing up to extortionate direct debits – charging some victims thousands of pounds to insure appliances they do not even own.
Direct debit is a trusted way to pay for bills, subscriptions and ongoing services, but Which? found that unscrupulous companies are using it as a stealthy way to get people to part with their money without realising it.A survey of more than 1,300 Which? members found that almost a quarter received unexpected calls about home appliance insurance or extended warranties within the last year.

Which? heard reports that callers lie to victims, telling them their existing cover is expiring, even though they do not have a policy, or call claiming to be another well-known company. Callers usually have access to personal information that makes their targets believe the calls are genuine.

They work by pressure selling invisible and easily forgotten products that require a regular monthly charge. Then they sit back and hope the £10 or £20 leaving their victim’s account month after month will not be noticed.

One 92-year-old grandmother paid out £10,000 over a two-year period to multiple firms claiming to be providing breakdown cover for her washing machine and boiler – as well as a dishwasher she does not own.

Despite having a call-blocking service with her phone provider, it turned out she had been hounded by cold callers telling her she needed to renew various policies she did not have. Believing their lies, she had repeatedly given out her bank details.

Her granddaughter Fran shared details of 25 firms that either charged her grandmother monthly or repeatedly pestered her with nuisance calls. They claimed to be offering all sorts of services, including cover for blocked drains and loyalty schemes.

The company websites use templates and look strikingly alike, and many of the firms are based in or linked to Bournemouth and Poole. Callers tend to use one company name on the phone, while another appears on bank statements – so it’s impossible to tell who is calling.

A big issue in the fight against cold calls is that telemarketing companies are freely selling sensitive data, and the companies buying it are abusing it. Trading Standards is working with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to tackle companies making sales calls without permission to use the data. But the ICO only has powers to disrupt these companies by fining them for breaches, rather than prosecuting them.

Which? urges people not to buy from cold callers selling appliance cover or any other type of insurance. Consumers interested in appliance cover should purchase this proactively from regulated firms. Anyone cold-called about appliance cover could ask for the company name and report it to ICO if it’s not regulated.

Anyone who is inundated with cold calls, or has family members plagued by this issue, can also ask the phone network if it offers any call blocking services, some of which are free of charge. If a direct debit has been set up without permission, or someone has been duped, they are entitled to claim all their money back from their bank.

Says Gareth Shaw, Which? Head of Money:

“Our investigation exposes how a network of unscrupulous firms are targeting vulnerable people – in some cases charging thousands of pounds to cover appliances that don’t even exist.

“If you or someone you know has been cold-called about appliance cover, ask for the company name and report it to ICO. If you are being inundated with cold calls, ask your phone network if it offers any call blocking services.

“We also want to see landline providers offering more clarity to their customers about the call blocking services they offer, and we call on providers to include their existing, free of charge protections within landline packages by default. Consumers should not have to opt in to be protected from unwanted cold calls.”

How to stop nuisance phone calls

  • Report a nuisance call: If you are receiving nuisance calls or unwanted texts from a company or a number, there are a range of organisations you can complain to. These include the Telephone Preference Service (TPS), your phone operator, Ofcom (which covers silent and abandoned calls) and the ICO.
  • Register with the TPS: If you’re receiving unsolicited phone calls, you should register with the TPS. The TPS is free to use and is a register which records your preference not to receive unsolicited sales or marketing calls.
  • Talk to your phone company: If you’re still receiving harassing or unsolicited phone calls, you can talk to your phone company to report the phone number. Most providers offer products, services and advice – much of which is free – to block unwanted calls or reduce nuisance calls.
  • Don’t consent to be contacted: If you’re registered with the TPS, third parties are not allowed to call you but some companies still do so. Third party marketing is when your details are sold on to numerous other companies for marketing purposes. Look out for tick boxes that request consent for your details to be passed onto third parties.
  • Consider call blocking technology: Phone companies offer a number of services that can help block unwanted nuisance calls. Some of these services are free but for some, monthly charges can apply, and may vary depending on what package you’re signed up to.
Chris Price
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