Concerns over vulnerable in debt in the west of England

"I was attacked, financially, I was attacked - that's my personal opinion."

Ian, who did not want to give his surname, wanted £2,000 to get back to work in Gloucester so he applied online at quickcashloansuk.co.uk.

They wanted £100 upfront, which he paid. They asked for more and Ian refused.

"They've hurt me really, really bad," he said. "These people aren't normal people. They're just thieves. That's my personal opinion...they robbed me of what I had."

No one trading under the name quickcashloansuk.co.uk has a Consumer Credit Licence to lend money.

The phone number given to Ian is dead, our email bounced back and they did not respond to our letter.

'No money'

Ian's story is not uncommon: more and more vulnerable people are being targeted online.

One Bristol woman I spoke to was targeted by fraudsters posing as a genuine company.

She wanted to consolidate her debts; but ended up paying out more than £2,200 in the mistaken belief she would get a loan of £22,000.

She wanted to remain anonymous, and said: "You do feel as though you've made a mistake. Because you're doing it to better yourself.

"Now I am far worse off than when I first started. I have no money."

She is now getting professional help, but had to take out genuine loans to cover what she had lost.

Phil Parkyn, from Trading Standards at Bristol City Council, said: "If they ask you for money upfront, my advice is to walk away."

He said that once people had sent money through the UK cash transfer scheme at the bank or Western Union "there's no way of tracing it or getting it back".

Mr Parkyn warned consumers have "got to be very sure they know the identity of the people they're contacting".

Many people in debt often turn to debt management companies but the Citizens' Advice Bureau and a group of MPs is warning about some of their business practices - in particular, upfront fees and high administration costs.

I spoke to Sally - not her real name - from Somerset, who ended up £14,000 in debt.

'Financial vampires'

Eventually, she paid £750 to the debt management company Moneyworries, and then £30 a month: of that, £5 a month went to her creditors and the rest was taken up in administration fees.

"I just feel that they just take - and they are just making money out of other people's misery," she said.

"They're just basically financial vampires that suck the goodness out of people.

"But you can walk away... you can find something better that is out there to help you."

Upfront fees and administration charges are not illegal - although there is a campaign against them.

Moneyworries could not comment on Sally's case because she had declined to give them permission to do so: but said they no longer charge set up fees and take 15% of monthly payments in administration, subject to a minimum of £25.

The company is being investigated by the Office for Fair Trading (OFT), which is minded to revoke its licence.

An independent adjudicator will make the final decision, which is subject to appeal.

'Free advice'

The OFT also wants to revoke the licences of other companies run by some of the same people - Yes Loans and No Worries Loans plus and seven others.

In a statement, the group said: "Moneyworries is committed to responding to the OFT concerns. And to working towards a solution which enables it to continue to provide the high quality financial services enjoyed by thousands of satisfied customers.

"We are studying the documentation and welcome the opportunity to present to the independent adjudicator with the strongest possible case."

Politicians are now getting involved: new guidance on the debt management sector is coming soon and some MPs are pushing for a change in the law, through a cross party Private Members' Bill.

Justin Tomlinson, the Conservative MP for Swindon North, said they had put the bill forward to protect some of the most vulnerable consumers in moments of financial distress.

"They are turning to debt management companies under the belief that they're getting free independent advice without upfront or excessive costs.

"We're seeking to make sure there's a safety check put in place so people can get truly independent and free advice."

This is good news for Sally, who's now with a new debt management company - they charged her no set-up fee and of the £150 she pays every month, every penny goes to her creditors.

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