Stress Awareness Month 2019: Why debt and stress should no longer go hand in hand
29 April 2019
Peter Wallwork, Chief Executive of the Credit Services Association (CSA)
It has always been widely accepted that problem debt can cause huge amounts of stress and in recent years the very real link between money issues and (often serious) mental health issues has been well documented.
But it’s not just those with significant amounts of unaffordable, inescapable debt who are affected. Back in 2013, we commissioned Engage Comms to carry out in-depth research into consumer and stakeholder perceptions of the debt collection sector. This involved the analysis of hundreds of conversations and behaviours on online forums. What they found was that even those with fairly insignificant arrears (for example as a result of moving house without sharing their forwarding address with creditors) could become incredibly stressed on receiving a letter or call from a debt collection agency. A culture of fear had made many believe that these companies were fraudsters who would add huge interest to small balances and hound customers for debts they didn’t really owe. While there were some isolated and/or historic cases of bad practice, this was not representative of how the industry operated at the time and is unrecognisable from how the practice of debt collection now works in 2019, particularly in the financial services sector.
The research findings showed that many debt collection agency websites were not communicating properly with consumers about what their role was and what credentials they held, or making it easy enough for customers to make simple repayments at their own convenience. This is something we have worked hard as an industry to address along with huge strides forward in raising industry standards through Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) authorisation, our updated Code of Practice, greater collaboration with the free debt advice sector, and a general recognition of the need and desire to do the right thing by the customer.
However, despite everything we and our members have done to reassure consumers that we are here to help and acting in their interests, we still have to battle against unverified, inaccurate advice given online via consumer forums and social media, some of which continues to wrongly persuade customers to ignore communication from debt collection agencies. This is nearly always poor advice that can (in the absence of contact) often lead to an escalation in debt collection activity including legal action.
This all causes unnecessary stress that customers no longer need to be faced with when receiving communication from a legitimate debt collection agency acting on behalf of the customer’s original creditor.
Another part of the problem is a lack of consistency in the way some sectors collect debt, which can leave some customers confused as to what their rights are and how organisations have to treat them. For example, debts such as utilities (eg. gas bills) and Local Authorities (eg. Council Tax bills) which are not financial services products don’t fall under FCA authorisation and therefore aren’t always subject to the same stringent rules around customer treatment. This is why we insist our members sign up to our CSA Code of Practice – effectively a common denominator for all forms of debt collection to ensure the same high standards across the whole industry. But whilst there are signs of change, some sectors – even those with their own regulators are still not all adopting these standards as rigidly or as quickly as we would like them to. We strongly believe that one clear Code of Practice, which sets the highest possible bar for fair treatment of customers, is something that consumers not only deserve but would reduce a lot of the stress associated with being in any kind of debt. In 2019 with all the help and advice that is available and with the high standards upheld by the majority of the debt collection industry, consumers can be reassured that there is a simple way to resolve money issues and ignoring it is not the answer.
As the UK trade body for the debt collection sector we see it as our responsibility to educate the public on what to do if they are contacted by a debt collection agency and reassure them that our members are working in their interests to help them find a resolution. It is also our responsibility to highlight and combat bad advice which can often leave customers in a much more stressful situation than they otherwise would have been. We’re currently working on an exciting project which we hope will educate customers more and therefore reduce the potential for additional stress on consumers who can easily resolve their financial difficulties. Watch this space for more information coming soon...
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