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X-Ray production team X-Ray production team | 19:34 UK time, Monday, 5 October 2009

If somebody said they could wipe your credit card debts because of a legal loophole, would you be tempted?

Rhodri has been investigating companies that say they can get your entire debt wiped for a small fee.

Despite the credit crunch we are still a nation of plastic lovers. On average we own two credit cards each, carrying a debt of £2,300 in total. A new breed of company is offering to ease your burden - for a fee.

There are 3069 claim management companies currently registered in the UK, of which more than a thousand have sprung up in the past year alone.

Some of these companies say if mistakes were made when a credit cardholder's initial contract was drawn up, - for example if the APR rate wasn't stated correctly - the whole agreement could be invalid, and any debt owed to the card company could be unenforceable.

X-Ray viewer Peter Davies from Neath has owned the same credit card since 1980 and has built up a debt of several thousand pounds. Last year he had to retire from his nursing job due to ill health. As a consequence, he and partner John are having to count every penny.

When Peter received a phone call out of the blue from Birmingham-based company Claimed 4U, he thought all his money worries were over.

"I got a message on my answer machine saying that if I get in touch with this company they could actually clear the balance on my credit card," Peter told Rhodri.

For an administration fee of £99 Peter says he expected his balance to be cleared within 15 weeks.

But a month after signing up with Claimed 4U, Peter received a nasty shock: the company had taken a payment of £394 from his account rather than the expected £99. Peter rang them straight away.

Peter told Rhodri: "They said the £99 is to clear the balance but the remainder is to clear your PPI - your Payment Protection Insurance. They were so convincing."

So Peter continued using his card as normal, expecting to hear within a few weeks that his debt had been wiped.

But a month later Peter received an even worse shock. A letter arrived saying that Claimed 4U - also known as Core Management Services UK, based in Birmingham - had gone into administration.

"How did you feel when you got that letter?" Rhodri asked him. "Terrible," said Peter. "I felt really upset, stressed, disgusted. To think I was having my credit card balance cleared. They've now put me into £400 worth of debt."

Peter had been "cold-called" by Claimed 4U. Companies who use solicitors and offer to take your case to court are operating illegally when they call people out of the blue, as they are meant to wait for customers to come to them, according to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

And the Ministry of Justice, which regulates claims management companies, has issued strong warnings to those who make exaggerated claims about the likely success of getting your debt wiped. So far more than 100 companies have had their licences cancelled.

X-Ray's friend and law expert Professor Margaret Griffiths gave her verdict on these firms.

"All these new companies are a product of the credit crunch," she told Rhodri. "People are looking around desperate for a way to resolve their debt problems, particularly if they've been unfortunate enough to lose their job. People are far more aware of their debts than they were."

A very significant court case recently concluded in South Shields County Court, in which a woman had her £8,000 credit card debt with MBNA written off when the credit card company was unable to produce the paperwork related to her PPI, rendering the entire debt invalid.

Does this court case mean that more credit card debt cases taken to court could be wiped in the future? Professor Margaret is sceptical.

"I don't think it's likely to because it was heard in County Court and that doesn't create a precedent for other courts, which aren't obliged to follow what's happened. But also this case was very specific to the PPI the client had," she said.

The law expert warns that people still need to be very careful when they deal with claims management companies.

"There's no guarantee that your debt will be written off, and indeed you might get yourself even deeper into the debt thinking it is going to be," Professor Margaret said.

And even if more claims do prove successful, somebody will have to foot the bill. According to the Association of British Bankers, we'll all pay more to cover the debts of those who refuse to pay their credit card bills.

Professor Margaret said: "There's a lot to be said of course for the fact that if you have created the debt, why shouldn't you pay it off?"

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