Buy Now Pay Later: 'I'm stressed over debt'

By Tom Espiner
Business reporter, BBC News

  • Published

Jordan has been chased by debt collection agencies after falling behind on payments for clothes.

The 23-year-old bought a winter coat using Buy Now Pay Later when employed, but then lost his job.

According to Citizens Advice, one in 10 shoppers who use this type of credit end up being pursued by debt collectors.

The Treasury said it was "stepping in and regulating" the market so people "are treated fairly".

Jordan started using Buy Now Pay Later after seeing it advertised on social media apps and on the iPhone app store. He decided to use it to buy a coat for £200.

"It was quite cold, it was the winter, and at that point I didn't have a lot of clothes," he said. "I was in a job, and I was able to pay it, but I ended up being quite unfortunate and losing that job."

He bought some other items including a hat, but fell behind with the payments to firms including Laybuy and Klarna.

"It was quite difficult for me to keep on top of it. I went through a lot of anxiety and depression," he said, and began to be chased by debt collection agencies.

"They don't give any leeway or ease with it at all," he says. "They call up quite a bit [and email]. It does make me stressed when I'm being constantly called and badgered about it."

"I think [Buy Now Pay Later] is quite dangerous, to be honest," Jordan says. "Especially on the advertising. They make it out to be such a good thing... but that's only condoning debt."

Jordan has recently moved to Bristol to start a new job, and will be in a position to pay off the debt.

Laybuy said: "Laybuy only refers a customer to a debt collector as a last resort, and only after other attempts to collect the outstanding payment have been exhausted.

"When a debt is referred to a debt collector, we only ever refer outstanding purchase price of the product.

"Late fees, which are limited to a maximum of £24 for a single order, are never passed to a debt collector. Laybuy also pays all the cost for debt collection."

Alex Marsh, head of Klarna UK, said: "At Klarna we only ever use debt collection agencies to help us contact customers we are unable to reach and we do this on fewer than 1% of orders.

"The debt collection agencies we work with are all Financial Conduct Authority (FCA)-authorised and will only contact customers by telephone or email and do not use bailiffs.

"We encourage any of our customers whose circumstances have changed, to please get in touch so we can help you with a plan to get back on track."

Image source, Getty Images

'Slippery slope'

Buy Now Pay Later options often appear at checkouts on retailers' websites, and can help spread the cost of purchases, interest-free, potentially avoiding expensive credit.

But Citizens Advice said that for many people Buy Now Pay Later can be "a slippery slope into debt".

It added that it "fears shoppers have been left unprotected and ill-informed during the rapid expansion of the sector".

"Not one of the BNPL checkouts on leading retailers' websites warned people they could be referred to debt collectors for missed payments," the advice service said.

Shoppers were charged £39m in late fees in the past year, it estimated.

Of those who were referred to a debt collector for missed payments, 96% said there had been negative consequences.

Millions of online shoppers have being clicking the buttons to spread the payments, but as the number of users has grown, so have the criticisms.

Buy Now Pay Later arrangements aren't viewed as a normal loan by credit reference agencies and other lenders.

It becomes a kind of invisible debt to the safety net system, so people with lots of little Buy Now Pay Later debts can get in a mess trying to juggle those payments alongside other loans and interest at the same time.

Fears are growing that younger people are being saddled with unnecessary debt, and that those who are already vulnerable are slipping further down the debt spiral.

Although the government said in February that they will regulate the sector, they haven't done so yet.

These included sleepless nights, ignoring texts, emails and letters in case they were about debts, avoiding answering the door, borrowing money to repay the debt, or deteriorating mental health.

Citizens Advice said that a woman aged in her 60s was trying to buy plants online, but struggled to find the postage cost at the checkout and decided to abandon her purchase.

The keen gardener was surprised to receive an email saying she had signed up to a buy now pay later agreement, and tried to cancel her order.

She told Citizens Advice: "I really don't understand how I ended up paying for my plants through buy now, pay later.

"I didn't understand what it was. Then I get these threatening emails saying they're going to contact debt collectors, and then I got a letter from a debt collector.

"I couldn't sleep, I lay awake worrying that someone was going to turn up to my house and start taking things. I have a number of health issues and I was worried this was going to make me ill again. It was eventually resolved, but at great stress to me."

'It's almost under-the-radar debt'

Image source, Getty Images

Millie Harris, a debt adviser at Citizens Advice East Devon, said: "My concern is that people aren't processing the fact that buy now pay later is credit. They don't realise there are going to be consequences if they don't pay - it gives them a false sense of security.

"I've seen people using it for their kids' clothes and shoes that they would otherwise never be able to afford. They are taking out what is effectively a loan, but they don't see it as one.

"For example, I helped someone who has tens of thousands of pounds of debt, but they don't see buy now pay later as part of that total.

"It's almost under-the-radar debt."

Dame Clare Moriarty, chief executive of Citizens Advice, agrees: "A seamless buy now pay later checkout process should not mean shoppers have to dig around in the small print to find out they're taking out a credit agreement, and could be referred to debt collectors if they can't pay. The warnings should be unmissable."

Citizens Advice is urging anyone who has been contacted by debt collectors to get free, independent debt advice.

A Treasury spokesperson said: "Buy Now Pay Later can be a helpful way to manage your finances but it's important that consumers are protected as these agreements become more popular.

"By stepping in and regulating, we're making sure people are treated fairly and only offered agreements they can afford."

On 2 February, the government announced it would to bring unregulated interest-free Buy Now Pay Later products into regulation.