Gone fishing - the Lewis Group's debt collection techniques
Bitterwallet has little time for debt collection agencies, but there are varying degrees of unpleasantness. Scraping the bottom of this slimy gutter are those companies that deceive and bully people into paying up. A Bitterwallet reader has been in touch, concerned about a letter he received from a sinister sounding organisation:
This morning I got a letter from the Scottish Bureau of Investigation? It was addressed to "The Occupier" and not to me, but I'm named in the letter. It asked "if you are this person, or can provide information on where they can be contacted" then to phone them on an 0870 number about a "personal matter"? It's signed with a scribble that can't be read, but there's no contact name given.
What is this organisation and what do they want from me?? It scared my wife to death, but I won't call them without knowing what they want.
It'll be about money. You might owe thousands, you might owe pennies - regardless, the Scottish Bureau of Investigation is a dormant company that doesn't trade, operated by a debt collection agency called The Lewis Group Ltd. They fish for information and hope to scare people into contacting them, at which point a person unwittingly confirms both their identity and address.
It's a tactic often employed by The Lewis Group, as advertised on their website:
We champion various collection techniques and activities to ensure optimum results. We house a large library of letters, tested for their effectiveness and collection managers have the ability to swiftly introduce new letters, as required.
There are laws and guidelines governing such correspondence from debt collection agencies; the Administration of Justice Act 1970 states that harassment or "behaviour calculated to subject [an individual] or members of [their] family or household to alarm, distress or humiliation" is illegal.
Sending such documents would also seem to undermine the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) debt collection guidelines which stipulate that debt companies should not undertake "unfair practises" such as:
- leaving out or presenting information in such a way that it creates a false or misleading impression
- not making clear who they are, who they work for, what their role is, what the purpose of the contact is
- asking or instructing debtors to make contact on premium rate telephone numbers
Just last week, OFT reported on another tracing technique, where similar letters are sent to neighbours with a similar address to fish for information on their targets.
What can be done about letters like these? Unless The Lewis Group contact you by name, state the nature of the debt and who they are seeking to recover monies on behalf of, ignore their correspondence - the letter has no legal standing and you're not required to contact them.
Bitterwallet attempted to speak to The Lewis Group concerning the Scottish Bureau of Investigation. We contacted their head office in Cleckheaton, but were given the Bureau's direct number in Glasgow. We called the number and reached... The Lewis Group. Upon asking to speak to their PR department, we were transferred back to Cleckheaton where a member of staff refused to either transfer the call to their PR department or provide a contact name.
We called Consumer Direct and talked through the contents of the letter. We were told that since the letter failed to explain its purpose, wasn't address to an individual and requested contact via a premium rate number, the letter was in breach of OFT guidelines, adding that anyone receiving such a letter should ignore it. For more information you can call Consumer Direct on 08454 04 05 06, or to make an official complaint, contact the Office of Fair Trading at firstname.lastname@example.org.