Clone firms: why would a company pretend to be a debt advice charity?

If you go online to look for debt advice, you should feel confident that the companies listed in the search engine results are genuine.

However, a new type of scam is on the rise, and it’s catching people out at a time when they need help the most.

Clone firms are websites that imitate real, trustworthy companies or charities, such as StepChange, National Debtline and Citizen’s Advice. They’re set up by companies who want to capture your personal data, and they can look very close to the real thing.

What makes clone firms so effective?

When searching online for a service you really need, such as debt advice, you may be in a hurry or feeling anxious about your situation. This makes you more likely to click the very first link at the top of a search engine page. After all, why would a search engine put an imitation website at the top of their page?

But here’s the thing – the comapnies that create these imitation websites will often pay for the advertising space at the very top of a search engine page. They do this because they’re counting on you clicking the first link you see – which would be their website, in this instance.

Next time you search online, look at the first couple of links at the top of the results. Chances are that they’ll have a small icon with the letters ‘Ad’ for advert.

Of course, legitimate debt advice charities do use ads to promote their services, and are doing everything they can to stop clone firms appearing on search pages. With that said, it always pays to be extra careful when clicking search engine links.

Why would companies use clone firms to get my personal data?

Your personal data (such as your name, address and bank details) is highly valuable. There are many reasons why a clone firm may want to get hold of it.

However, in this case, they want to sell your data to debt management companies who may ‘sell’ solutions that make money for them rather than helping you. These companies aren’t always regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) either.

A clone firm couldn’t fool me…could it?

Don’t be so sure! Remember; the aim of a clone firm is to look as legitimate as possible.

When you click on a link through to a clone firm, all may seem well at first. The website looks professional enough. It mentions debt solutions and freezing interest and charges. They even have handy online tools and great reviews of their service…but it’s all fake!

The reviews may have even been written by the scammers themselves or by ‘review providers’ who’ll write bogus reviews of a company for a fee.

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“I was taken in by a clone firm…” – Steve

Steve was looking for debt advice when he encountered one of these clone firms. He’s still having problems since sharing his data with them.

Listen to Steve’s story on BBC You and Yours.

How can I protect myself from clone firms or scam websites?

By following these simple steps, you can easily spot a clone firm and prevent them from getting hold of your data.

WHAT’S THE WEB ADDRESS?
For example, if you’re looking for StepChange Debt Charity, the correct web address is www.stepchange.org. If that’s not the web address that you’re seeing, it could be a clone firm.

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WHAT INFO DO THEY HAVE ON THEIR WEBSITE?
Do they have full contact information on there? Have they mentioned being registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)?

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WHAT ARE THEY CLAIMING THEY CAN DO?
Are they offering a ‘Government-backed debt advice scheme to write off your debts’? No legitimate debt advice organisations would make claims like this.

Have you been contacted by a clone firm? We want to hear from you!

The StepChange Media team want to talk to anyone who’s accidentally used the services of a clone firm. This’ll help StepChange prevent these firms from taking advantage of people who need debt advice.

Please send an email with as much detail as you can provide!

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