Protect Yourselves from Loan Sharks – national campaign week.

This week, October 24th-October 31st, is national ‘Stop Loan Sharks’ week. This is a national public awareness campaign organised by the England Illegal Money Lending Team (the ‘loan sharks team’) aimed at raising awareness of how to spot loan shark activity, how to stop loan shark activity and how to report loan shark activity.

In their own words:

“Every year the England Illegal Money Lending Team run Stop Loan Sharks Week. The aim is to get a message out through all our partners. This year’s theme is ‘People pretending to be something they are  not’. 

We have picked this theme as 56% of people we have supported over the past year believed the illegal lender was their friend at the time at which they took out the loan. We want to encourage people to question if this is the case. 

We have also heard of lenders pretending to be associated with legal lenders that have closed and want to highlight that there are places to go to check”.

 

Lending can cause people to feel a bit self conscious or embarrassed; especially if they feel they aren’t able to make repayments and start to feel under pressure from lenders. However, illegal lending, ‘loan shark activity’*, can involve much more than embarrassment.

It can also happen to anyone. According to recent research…

  • 48% of borrowers were in some form of employment;
  • 60% of borrowers went without food or fuel to repay a loan; and,
  • 1 in 5 borrowers didn’t tell their partner.

Asking for help can be scary. People don’t often choose to borrow from an illegal lender, but many might take up the offer of a small loan from someone who appears to be a well-meaning friend. False friends can make it seem like they are doing you a favour, but quickly turn nasty.

 

Illegal lenders are masters of disguise and can draw you in under false pretences. They might tell you they work or worked for a credible organisation but the truth is they are hiding behind a fake mask of respectability. You can check your lender is authorised with a quick look on the Financial Conduct Authority’s website – at https://www.fca.org.uk/firms/financial-services-register . Taking a few minutes to check could be the best decision you ever make.

It can be hard to tell if a relative, friend, neighbour or colleague is involved with a loan shark. If you think you know someone who could be involved with a loan shark, or you think you have been targeted, call @SLSEngland on their 24- hour hotline 0300 555 2222 or visit www.stoploansharks.co.uk  and use their live chat feature. 

 

Finally, a common misconception when reporting a loan shark is that they will find out you’ve talked. This is a myth; the @SLSEngland hotline and live chat feature mentioned above are both anonymous and confidential. Communications are secure and secrecy is guaranteed. 

Please remember, by reporting a loan shark you are not only helping yourself get to a better financial situation, you are helping others to not end up in the same position.

Help the loan shark team stop loan sharks. Go to www.stoploansharks.co.uk and find out more about this campaign.

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(*a loan with no paperwork, extortionate interest rates, use of bank cards as security and threats of violence).

National Consumer Week 2023 – Top Tips to make Black Friday and Cyber Monday work for you.

In the world we live in today, for lots of people, there seems to be no ‘rush’ higher than the feeling of spending money. For good, or ill, it makes the world go around.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday, on November 24th and November 27th respectively, represent both the height of temptation – coming, as they do, only weeks before Xmas – and the height of risk for those unwilling to apply reasoning to their spending.

Citizens Advice is supporting National Consumer Week this year to help consumers through this difficult period. Between October 16th and October 22nd they are promoting key messages to help consumers avoid the pitfalls of spending too much, spending without an understanding of their consumer rights, and spending in ways that could cause long term harm.

Below are well known, but worth remembering, top tips for making Black Friday and Cyber Monday work for you.

1. Check online payments are secure – ensure ‘https’ (the ‘s’ stands for secure) and a padlock icon are present in the browser bar.
2. Know who you are buying from – if buying from a company you have not used before, check reviews and previous customers’ feedback. If in doubt, don’t buy.
3. Be wary of suspicious web links – avoid clicking on email web links. These may direct you to fake (but realistic looking) websites. It is better to type in the website address yourself. Again, if you’re not sure, don’t do it.
4. Know your return rights – remember, with goods bought online, you have a 14 day cooling-off period to cancel most types of orders, return the items and get your money back.
5. Choose the best payment method – paying by credit card for single items costing £100 and over gives you valuable legal protection if goods do not arrive, are faulty, or do not match the description. Paying by credit or debit card for orders costing less than £100 also gives you protection using your card provider’s voluntary ‘Chargeback’ scheme.
6. Know your delivery rights – before you buy, check the company delivers to where you live, the cost and the expected delivery timeframe.
7. Make sure you are spending responsibly – try to remember, a purchase is only a bargain if you needed it!
8. Set a sustainable household budget – try to spread your (pre) Xmas spending over several weeks so you aren’t going short on essentials or building a ‘debt hangover’ for January and February.

(source: The Consumer Council, 2019 – https://www.consumercouncil.org.uk/blackfriday).

For more information on your consumer rights and protections in general visit the Citizens Advice website at https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/consumer/ .

For information on spotting, stopping and reporting scams visit your local council’s website and enter the search terms, ‘Trading Standards’ or ‘scam prevention’.

For more consumer protection advice geared specifically to Black Friday and Cyber Monday go to https://www.which.co.uk/topic/black-friday .

Finally, if you want to know more about CA’s National Consumer Campaign 2023, go to https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/about-us/our-work/our-campaigns/awareness-raising-campaigns/NCW/ and enter the search term, ‘National Consumer Week’.

According to research published by Citizens Advice in July, one in six people (8.5 million) ended up buying something online last year they didn’t want, need or came to regret because of online shopping traps used by some retailers.

Nobody wants to turn down a great deal before Xmas. Make sure you are in the know before making costly decisions.

Ed Hodson
‘Citizens Advice working in partnership across Warwickshire’.

Homelessness Prevention Awareness Week and ‘World Homelessness Day’

Tuesday October 10th is internationally recognised as ‘World Homelessness Day’ .

 

To mark this day, and the importance of this issue, we are setting out a series of daily messages this week through social media and via our partners to highlight key statistics around homelessness, top tips for renters, and guidance for those in mortgage arrears; finishing with putting a spotlight on a specific issue blighting new tenants across the country – the inconsistent provision of essential furnishings, such as flooring and window coverings.

 

Threatened homelessness is on the increase, driven by rising rents, inadequate benefit levels, and the knock on impact of cost-of-living pressures on household budgets. However, public, and political, discourse around homelessness often focuses only on the relatively few street homeless (ie ‘rough sleepers’) to the exclusion of thousands and thousands of those living in temporary accommodation, emergency accommodation (such as refuges), or ‘sofa surfing’.

 

If you want to understand the real numbers of those without a secure roof over their heads, how this is broken down into families and singles, and what the barriers are to accessing affordable suitable and secure accommodation take a look at, respectively, CRISIS’s ‘Homelessness Monitor’ and the findings of St Martin-in-the-fields’ ‘Annual Survey of Front Line Housing Sector Workers’.

 

Despite recent, and legitimate, concerns over the impact of rising mortgage rates on homeowners, tenants in social or private rented accommodation continue to be much more insecure in their housing.

 

As a response to potential cost-of-living pressures this winter the government has updated and re-published its ‘How to Rent Guide’. This is a must read for new tenants or for those supporting tenants.

 

Recent mortgage interest rate rises have, nevertheless, left homeowners with either substantially higher monthly payments or faced with difficult remortgaging decisions. This is causing tremendous stress and anxiety as well as heightened financial difficulties.

 

For those with mortgage arrears, or those worried about generating mortgage arrears, help is out there. Citizens Advice provides impartial and independent advice and guidance for struggling households on this and related housing issues. ‘Moneyhelper’ also provides valuable money management help around mortgage payments.

 

The path away from street homelessness usually starts with placement in temporary social or council housing, or low cost private rented accommodation. In an increasing number of cases tenants are being placed in unfurnished properties or, even if basic fixtures and fittings are present, in accommodation with no flooring or heat insulating window coverings (such as curtains or blinds).

 

We, and many others, believe this ‘furniture poverty’ is unacceptable. If you are unaware of this issue, and the impact it has on tenants, read the recent report from Altair entitled ‘Lesson 2: the tenants’ perspective’. If you want to know more about, or actively support, the wider campaign go to the website of the charity End Furniture Poverty and see how you can help.

 

Finally, if you work in the front line of the housing and homelessness sector, and want to have your voice heard (as well as gain access to training funds and other benefits), visit St Martin-in-the-fields website and consider joining their Front Line Network.

 

End.

Almost 430,000 young people urged to claim unclaimed Child Trust Fund cash – a press release from HMRC

The article below is reproduced in full from a Press Release shared by HM Revenue & Customs on September 18. To see the original version go to https://www.gov.uk/government/news/almost-430000-young-people-urged-to-claim-their-cash .

 

According to a Press Release from HM Revenue & Customs, hundreds of thousands of young adults could have an average of £2,000 waiting for them in their unclaimed Child Trust Fund account. The press release continues as follows:

Almost 430,000 18-21 year olds with an unclaimed Child Trust Fund, worth an average of £2,000, are being urged by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to claim their cash as part of UK Savings Week (18 to 24 September 2023).

Child Trust Funds are long-term, tax-free savings accounts and were set up for every child born between 1 September 2002 and 2 January 2011, with the government contributing an initial deposit of at least £250. Funds can be withdrawn once the account matures when the child turns 18.

A recent student survey, conducted by UCAS, asked first and second year university students about Child Trust Funds and the results showed that they were most interested to know how much money was in their account (43%) and how to claim it (32%). The survey also revealed 60% of students got their information about Child Trust Funds from their parents.

Young adults and parents can search on GOV.UK to find out where their Child Trust Fund account is held.

Angela MacDonald, HMRC’s Second Permanent Secretary and Deputy Chief Executive, said:

Many 18-21 year olds are starting out in first jobs or apprenticeships, starting university or moving into their first home and their Child Trust Fund is a pot of money with their name on. I would encourage young people to use the online tool to track it down or, for parents of teenagers, to speak to them to ensure they’re aware of their Child Trust Fund. It could make a real difference to their future plans.

There are currently 5.3 million open Child Trust Fund accounts. Young people aged 16 or over can take control of their own Child Trust Fund, although the funds can only be withdrawn once they turn 18. More than 500,000 matured Child Trust Fund accounts have been claimed or transferred into an ISA since the oldest children on the scheme turned 18 in September 2020.

Families can continue to pay up to £9,000 a year tax-free into a Child Trust Fund until the account matures. The money stays in the account until the child withdraws or reinvests it into another account.

The UCAS survey revealed that 74% of respondents were aware of Child Trust Funds.

Further findings include:

  • more men (75%) were aware of Child Trust Funds compared to 73% of women
  • 78% of 19 year olds were aware of Child Trust funds compared to 71% of 20 to 21 years olds
  • of the people who had not yet claimed their Child Trust Fund, 76% of respondents were likely to take steps to learn more about how to withdraw it.

Sharon Davies, CEO of Young Enterprise, said:

We would encourage all young people to investigate if they have money which is unclaimed in a Child Trust Fund and to use it wisely. A disproportionate amount of the money is unclaimed by young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are the very people who would benefit most from these funds. The investment could be placed into an adult ISA or put towards driving lessons, education or starting a business.

The money in a Child Trust Fund has the potential to be life changing and the lack of knowledge about them shows the importance of financial education and financial planning from a young age.

The government is offering help for households. Check GOV.UK to find out what cost of living support you could be eligible for.

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Further information

More information on Child Trust Funds and how to access the money can be found on GOV.UK.

Latest figures for Child Trust Funds were released on 22 June 2023 and include figures up to April 2022.

The Child Trust Fund scheme closed in January 2011 and was replaced with Junior Individual Savings Accounts (ISA).

If a parent or guardian was not able to set up an account for their child, the government opened a savings account on the child’s behalf.

If teenagers or their parents and guardians already know who their Child Trust Fund provider is, they can contact them directly. This might be a bank, building society or other savings provider.

UCAS surveyed 1,130 first and second year students in the UK between 6 and 20 July 2023. The survey was conducted on behalf of HMRC.

Young Enterprise is a national charity who specialise in Enterprise Education and Financial Education and are a trusted and valued provider of knowledge, resources and training to anyone teaching young people how to manage money. Young Enterprise works directly with young people, teachers, and volunteers, with the support of corporate partners, to build a successful and sustainable future for all young people.

Young Enterprise’s vision is to ensure that every young person is provided with the opportunity to learn the vital skills needed to earn and look after their money. Any investment to improve young people’s financial literacy not only pays huge dividends to their lives, but their families, their communities and to wider society.

Young Enterprise is partnering with Wealthify to launch free tools for teachers, designed specifically for young people to understand Child Trust Funds, and how they could make best use of them for their future.

 

 

National ‘End Digital Poverty’ Day

Today, September 12th 2023, is national ‘End Digital Poverty’ day. Below are some key points about what the issue is, who is driving the campaign, and what we can do to support it together.

How to define ‘Digital Poverty’

The Digital Poverty Alliance – see below – define ‘digital poverty’ as “the inability to interact with the online world fully, when, where and how an individual needs to”. 

Digital poverty exacerbates wider poverty, divides society socially and culturally, and generates economic and social inequalities. While it continues, the ability of society to move forward together remains uncertain.

What is ‘End Digital Poverty’ day?

End Digital Poverty day is a nationwide initiative, driven by the Digital Poverty Alliance, dedicated to raising awareness about the pressing issue of digital poverty in the UK; it is an opportunity for all to come together to address this urgent issue head-on. 

By working together on this the hope is to raise awareness, promote practical actions, and rally support from individuals and organisations to make a tangible difference.

The work of addressing digital poverty goes far beyond this one day.

Digital Poverty in Four Numbers

When thinking about digital poverty it can be hard to recognise its breadth and scale; especially if you personally are not affected by it. The Digital Alliance promotes 4 statistics that try to break through that veil and highlight how this issue should be put into context. 

According to them:

  • 1 in 5 children homeschooling during the pandemic did not have access to an appropriate device like a laptop;
  • 26% of young people currently do not have access to a laptop or similar device;
  • 56% of people offline can’t afford an average monthly broadband bill; and,
  • 2.5 million people are behind on their broadband bills.

This is an urgent issue generating a growing divide.

What does Digital Poverty mean to our communities?

Here, in local Citizens Advice offices across the country, we know as well as anyone the issues and impacts of digital poverty in our communities. 

Whether in the form of a lack of digital access, a lack of digital literacy, a lack of digital support infrastructure, or as the victims of growing forms of digital discrimination we see clients everyday unable to obtain or retain their entitlements from government, exercise their legal rights, or secure what they have paid for via public and commercial service providers. 

Effective and cheap communication, vital information gathering and sharing, and the ability to hold others accountable are essential in the proper exercise of legal rights and societal norms. 

Values which underpin the aspirations of a modern society such as equal access to the law and being able to compete on a level playing field in the ‘markets’ for employment and training, education, health and housing services are all undermined if commonplace service provision becomes ‘digital-by default’ before those that need support the most have become ‘digital-by-default’ themselves. 

Digital poverty is a classic “something must be done” issue. ‘End Digital Poverty’ day is an attempt to raise awareness of that and give interested parties the opportunities to make their contribution to this non-political cause.

To find out more about how you can support this campaign, today and in the future, go to https://digitalpovertyalliance.org/end-digital-poverty-day/ 

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Editor’s Note

Most of the content for this piece was extracted from the campaign website of the Digital Poverty Alliance. 

The Digital Poverty Alliance was established in 2021 by the Learning Foundation, Currys plc and the Institute of Engineering and Technology.  

It is now funded by donations from the public, organisations, and charities across the UK. It does receive government funding.

In their own words they “convene, compel and inspire collaboration for the UK & global community to lead sustainable action against digital poverty”, working to end digital poverty for all by 2030.

For more information on the Digital Poverty Alliance go to https://digitalpovertyalliance.org/ .

Citizens Advice Across Warwickshire warns consumers to protect themselves from ID Theft in the run up to Xmas

As the digital-by-default online delivery of public, as well as commercial, services becomes common the threat, and potential impact, of ‘Identification Theft’ only increases.

 

At the same time, as online vulnerabilities increase, it is important not to forget the range and sophistication of offline threats.

 

Below is a brief explanation of what is commonly meant by the term ‘ID Theft’, how it can be spotted and how you can protect yourself, your family and friends from avoidable exposure.

 

What is the difference between ID Theft and ID Fraud?

Action Fraud describes Identity Theft as happening when fraudsters access enough information about someone’s identity (such as their name, date of birth, current or previous addresses) to commit a fraud. Identity theft can take place whether the victim is alive or deceased. Identity theft is often a precursor to fraud but is not considered a recordable crime in itself.

 

Action Fraud describes Identity Fraud as the use of that stolen identity in criminal activity to obtain goods or services by deception. Fraudsters can use your identity details to:

 

  • Open bank accounts.
  • Obtain credit cards, loans and state benefits.
  • Order goods in your name.
  • Take over your existing accounts.
  • Take out mobile phone contracts.
  • Obtain genuine documents such as passports and driving licences in your name.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) states that your identity is one of your most valuable assets. If your identity is stolen, you can lose money and may find it difficult to get loans, credit cards or a mortgage.

Your name, address and date of birth provide enough information to create another ‘you’. An identity thief can use a number of methods to find out your personal information and can then use it to open bank accounts, take out credit cards and apply for state benefits in your name.

 

Top Tips to Spot Efforts to Steal Your Identity

 

The ICO identify a number of signs to look out for that may mean you are or may become a victim of identity theft:

  • You have lost or have important documents stolen, such as your passport or driving licence.
  • Mail from your bank or utility provider doesn’t arrive.
  • Items that you don’t recognise appear on your bank or credit card statement.
  • You apply for state benefits, but are told you are already claiming.
  • You receive bills or receipts for goods or services you haven’t asked for.
  • You are refused financial services, credit cards or a loan, despite having a good credit rating.
  • You receive letters in your name from solicitors or debt collectors for debts that aren’t yours.

 

How to Protect Yourself and Others from ID Theft.

 

The ICO believe following the steps below will significantly lower the risk of falling prey to ID Theft:

 

  • Store any documents carrying personal information – such as your driving licence, passport, bank statements, utility bills or credit card transaction receipts – in a safe and secure place.
  • Shred or destroy your old documents so that nothing showing your name, address or other personal details can be taken.
  • Monitor your credit report and regularly check your credit card and bank statements for suspicious activity.
  • When you move house, contact your bank, credit and store card providers, mobile phone provider, utility providers, TV licensing, your doctor and dentist etc, and give them your new address – you don’t want the new tenants to have access to letters containing your personal information. You can also redirect your mail by contacting Royal Mail.
  • Remember, less is more. The less you give away about yourself, the lower the risk of information falling into the wrong hands.
  • Think before you buy online – use a secure website which displays the company’s contact details, look for a golden padlock symbol and a clear privacy and returns policy. Check the web address begins with https.

 

What Do i Do if i’m a Victim of ID Theft

If you think you are a victim of identity theft or fraud, act quickly to ensure you are not liable for any financial losses.

  • Report all lost or stolen documents, such as passports, driving licences, credit cards and cheque books to the organisation that issued them.
  • Inform your bank, building society and credit card company of any unusual transactions on your statement.
  • Request a copy of your credit file to check for any suspicious credit applications.
  • Report the theft of personal documents and suspicious credit applications to the police and ask for a crime reference number.
  • Contact CIFAS (the UK’s Fraud Prevention Service) to apply for protective registration. Once you have registered you should be aware that CIFAS members will carry out extra checks to see when anyone, including you, applies for a financial service, such as a loan, using your address.

 

With Christmas coming, cost-of-living pressures mounting, and online service provision increasing, it has never been more important to protect your personal details from fraudsters and scammers. Don’t let fraudsters steal your identity.

 

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Editor’s Note.

The content above is drawn from a combination of two published sources from key stakeholders and experts in the field. These are:

 

Action Fraud

 

https://www.actionfraud.police.uk/a-z-of-fraud/identity-fraud-and-identity-theft 

 

Information Commissioner’s Office

 

https://ico.org.uk/for-the-public/identity-theft 

 

For more information on how to report information about Identity Theft contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or visit: 

 

https://crimestoppers-uk.org/keeping-safe/personal-safety/identity-theft 

 

For an alternative explanation of ID Theft, ID Fraud, and how to spot and report it go to Which? at:

 

https://www.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/advice/what-is-identity-theft-a7wcQ6c0RyI1 

Record numbers seek help for energy debt before winter even hits, Citizens Advice Press Release warns

  • Record numbers seeking help from Citizens Advice for energy debt.
  • 7.8 million people borrowed to pay their energy bills in first six months of 2023.
  • 1 in 4 people say their energy bill is the essential cost they’re most worried about.
  • Disabled people, single parents and low-income families to be hardest hit this winter.

Citizens Advice says it’s helping record numbers of people with energy debts before winter has even begun –  and the size of the debts people face is rising. New research from the charity shows almost eight million people had to borrow money to pay their energy bills in the first half of 2023, a number it forecasts will rise over the coming months.

The charity is warning that its data suggests that millions are facing a winter as bad, or even worse, than last winter, unless the government acts on energy bills. Its research shows disabled people, single parents and low-income households earning less than £29k will be the hardest hit this winter.

Despite an estimated fall in the energy price cap, the average household can actually expect to pay slightly more in the coming winter than they did between January and March 2023 – if current forecasts hold. 

Citizens Advice is calling on the government to do more to help people on the lowest incomes, such as providing additional support through the Warm Home Discount. 

We can’t afford the bills now, let alone when it gets colder – Natasha’s story 

Natasha lives with her husband and children. She is unable to work due to mental health problems. Her husband works part-time as he is Natasha’s main carer. The family have fallen into arrears with their gas and electric as they just do not have enough money coming in to cover their rent and essential bills.

Natasha said: “Our energy debt is now around £8,000. Even though I am home all day I try not to use too much gas and electricity as I know we can’t afford to pay the bills.

“Everything is just so expensive and it’s really hard for me and my family. Just thinking about the energy debts gives me anxiety. My husband no longer speaks with me about the bills as he does not want it to stress me out. But I know after he pays what he can towards bills we have nothing left.

“The bailiffs came to our home because of the gas and electric debt. They looked all around my home and said there was nothing of value to take, then left.

“I know the energy prices will go up again and that is worrying me a lot. Winter is going to be very hard for me and my family as we can’t afford the bills now, so definitely won’t be able to afford them when it gets colder. ”

The growing energy debt problem

Starting the winter in debt means there is a real risk of falling even further behind on energy. People have to pay back arrears on top of the costs of increasing energy use in the colder months, and find the funds to cover other essential bills.

Citizens Advice predicts that by the end of this year it will have seen 26% more people in need of help with energy debt compared to 2022. And the charity says the numbers seeking help for energy debt has more than doubled in four years. 

Not only has the number of people in debt increased, but the value of the energy debt has also grown considerably. Ofgem recently estimated the total energy debt owed by consumers to be £2.25 billion. This trend is reflected in Citizens Advice data which shows the average amount of energy debt owed by the people it helps is now around £1,711, a third higher than it was in 2019. 

Households at greatest risk

The charity’s analysis shows disabled people and families with young children, particularly single parents, are more likely to have very high levels of energy debt, and high monthly shortfalls too.

The charity also found higher levels of anxiety among these groups compared to the general population. 55% of disabled people say they’re very or fairly worried about affording their energy bills in the next six months. And 77% of single parents said they are very or fairly worried about paying for energy as we head towards December.

Citizens Advice says even households with an annual income of £29k are being stretched to meet increases in prices and will face choices such as choosing between heating or eating this winter.

Dame Clare Moriarty, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“What we saw last winter must never be repeated. Struggling households unable to pay their energy bills, people unable to top up their prepayment meter, and record numbers coming to us for crisis support.

“With increasing numbers of peple we help facing a negative budget, where they simply don’t have enough to cover their essential bills, there is a real risk this winter will be worse. 

“The government should look seriously at stepping in with additional bill support to help people through the winter.”

Notes to editors

  1. Citizens Advice is made up of the national charity Citizens Advice; the network of independent local Citizens Advice charities across England and Wales; the Citizens Advice consumer service; and the Witness Service.
  2. Our network of charities offers impartial advice online, over the phone, and in person, for free.
  3. Citizens Advice helped 2.55 million people face to face, over the phone, by email and webchat in 2021-22. And we had 40.6 million visits to our website. For full service statistics see our monthly publication Advice trends.
  4. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 18,500 trained volunteers, working at over 2,500 service outlets across England and Wales.
  5. You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 0808 223 1133 or 0808 223 1144 for Welsh language speakers.

Parcel problems show no signs of letting up and consumers are paying the price: a blog from Citizens Advice

From new clothes to pet food, we’re buying more online. As a result, we’re more reliant than ever on the parcel market to deliver the goods we need, with over 80% of the UK population making online purchases this year. But with online shopping now accounting for such a significant proportion of our spending, can we rely on the parcel market both to deliver and to protect people when things go wrong?

People with a parcel problem can access our online advice and contact our consumer service for more support. When we look at our data on this, we’ve found things have been getting worse, with people experiencing more problems now than they did pre-pandemic. If your parcel goes missing, it can be hard for people to resolve — it’s not always clear whether to contact the retailer or the courier. Customers often find themselves left out of pocket with nowhere to go.

Ofcom has recognised certain issues in the parcels market — particularly around poor complaints handling and a lack of provision for consumers with accessibility needs — and has taken some welcome steps to address these. But our evidence suggests current action doesn’t go far enough.

Parcel companies have had years to get their act together but the parcel market has shown no signs of improvement

Over the past 4 years, more people have come to us for help with parcel delivery issues. During lockdown, parcel companies struggled to cope with staff shortages and a huge increase in sales. As a result, the rate of problems also went up. Yet, worryingly, delivery problems have continued to grow even post-pandemic. In 2021, we saw 68,567 views of our advice on compensation for lost, damaged, or delayed parcels, which rose to 73,360 views in 2022. Despite an overall decrease in parcel volumes in 2022, delivery issues remain high, with a 78% increase since 2019 in demand for help with orders not delivered.

Widespread parcel problems persist throughout the country

Parcel problems have increased across the UK — in both rural and urban areas. From 2019 to 2022, there’s been an average rise of 70% in parcel issues. The East of England has seen the highest increase, with an approximate 81% increase since before the pandemic. People should be able to depend on parcel companies to get important things they need, but with problems on the rise this is becoming less and less likely.

As the cost-of-living crisis continues, people can’t afford to fix these growing parcel problems

Parcel companies need to do more to support those who are struggling with increasing costs. When a parcel goes missing, it can be expensive for people to resolve. And if the parcel company claims the package has been delivered, customers can simply be left out of pocket, sometimes leaving people having paid significant sums for products they haven’t received.

Gemma* came to her local Citizens Advice for help after she’d ordered summer clothes online for her children. When her parcel never arrived, she contacted the retailer. They told her the parcel company had marked it as delivered. When she went back to say this was not the case she received no response. By the time she came for help, she had been waiting for over two weeks for the retailer to get back to her and was worried that she would be unable to get a refund to allow her to replace the clothes she had lost.

*Name changed to preserve anonymity

As the cost-of-living crisis continues, we’re seeing more and more people who are living on empty. For many, a parcel delivery problem like Gemma’s can mean the difference between being able to just about balance a monthly budget and falling behind.

Why Ofcom needs to move faster

Our data shows that year on year, parcel delivery is continuing to cause more problems for consumers. This is continuing despite overall parcel volumes having fallen in the last year, suggesting the issue goes deeper than general growth in the parcels market. Last year our parcel league table revealed that consumers continue to be placed at the sharp end of problems in the parcels market and our internal data suggests these trends have not changed. The regulator, Ofcom, needs to step up.

Ofcom’s approach to these problems assumes that competition in the parcel market will encourage companies to innovate. However, as retailers tend to hold contracts with the parcel company, the space for consumers to avoid poor-performing carriers is limited.

Ofcom has begun to acknowledge the problems, with new guidance for parcel companies around complaints and accessibility.

We’re concerned this doesn’t go far enough

Consumers should be able to expect good service — and with the rate of problems only increasing, Ofcom needs to take further action. We want to see consumer protection conditions — which outline a set of conditions that should be met to ensure positive outcomes for consumers — apply equally to all parcel companies. We also want to see timely interventions and enforcement actions to hold companies accountable when they consistently underperform.

Without further action, the unacceptably rapid growth in problems looks set to continue, at a time many consumers can’t afford to resolve them.

Editor’s Note.

This blog is reproduced by kind permission of Naomi Kalombo from Citizens Advice.

When advice is not enough — the rise of negative budgets: a blog from Citizens Advice.

Something is going wrong. Increasingly our advice is no longer enough to get people back on their feet.

So we’re releasing the first in a series of landmark reports looking at the phenomenon of negative budgets. This technical sounding term represents a stark reality — people who, despite expert advice, do not have enough money to cover their essential bills.

It shows a country with millions living on empty, people struggling in a much more profound and ongoing way than what might be dismissed as recent temporary crises.

This report aims to start a conversation about a policy issue that will increasingly define the next decade and a tool or a lens that can be used by policy makers to understand what can be done.

The limits of advice

Helping people deal with their problems can be absolutely transformative. This is why Citizens Advice exists and 1000s of front-line advisers have done this job with expertise and care for more than 80 years. But for more and more people we’re reaching the limit of what advice alone can do.

Myself and colleagues meet regularly with advisers and leaders of local Citizens Advice and increasingly the story we hear is — advisers doing everything to help people, boosting their income, cutting costs and helping with debts. And how this used to be enough to help people back on their feet, but too often that’s no longer true. It’s a painful thing for advisers to say, that without a boost to income or a cut in essential costs, there’s nothing more we can do.

We started off a little sceptical about whether anything had really changed.

Firstly, our advice still clearly makes a huge difference to people’s lives — I know this from the regular sight I have of our impact data.

And secondly, people have always struggled to get by. Advisers have always felt an acute sense of frustration from seeing the same kinds of people with the same problems day after day — it does that to you. In my role you see that through emails and forms from advisers saying ‘I’ve helped someone with issue X five times today, can’t something be done?’

So we delved into our data to find out more.

The rise of negative budgets

Something fundamental has changed. That story we hear from local offices is right there in the data. A rapid rise in people whose income doesn’t meet their essential costs — technically known as a ‘negative budget’.

Understanding the technical definition of a negative budget is key. Someone is deemed to be in a negative budget based on a rigorous assessment with a debt adviser where income is maximised and costs are cut back externally validated levels. It’s not about what they want to spend, but what they need to spend on the bare essentials.

We’ve done this with over 250,000 people in the last 4 years alone and the results are grim. In 2019, just over a third of our debt clients were in a negative budget. Today it’s over half and the number goes up pretty much every quarter.

What this is showing is millions of people living on empty. Huge numbers doing all the right things but still ending up short at the end of the month. It also shows millions more questioning why they have so little left once the bills have been paid — nowhere near enough to build an adequate buffer or to afford much more than the bare essentials. And this is not just those people might (rightly or wrongly) expect — this is people in work, people on reasonable incomes and homeowners.

A recent or long-standing phenomenon?

Our data focuses on recent history, but I’m sure many will be placing this in the context of long-standing debates about declining living standards. Others have written on and researched this extensively and I won’t recap here.

But as everyone is prone to do, I sometimes think about this through my own life. Looking at a significant period of my upbringing purely through an advice lens, things were pretty comfortable. We were a single parent household near Newcastle, with two kids. Income was steady — one part-time mid-level local authority salary (to balance around childcare) with some child maintenance and basic state support (child benefit etc). Expenditure was fine — nothing particularly extravagant but the basics were all there with enough left over for the occasional holiday and other things that take someone beyond just surviving. A Citizens Advice adviser would look at it and have no cause for concern.

The reason for sharing this has nothing to do with a ‘things were tough’, or even a ‘people used to just get on with it’ narrative. It’s the opposite. What surprises me is how comfortable we were. The maths — the income and expenditure — didn’t just add up, it left us with surplus, meaning we could put money away for a rainy day.

Now, reading too much into individual examples (particularly my rose-tinted childhood musings) is dangerous. But this story — to me at least — just feels so much less likely today. Met with the same story today, one of our advisers might not be waving us happily out of the door with everything in balance.

More than a policy challenge

Over the last couple of years, negative budgets have started to form part of the story we tell about our clients. But increasingly we are using it as a diagnostic and analytical tool for our own work. Who is struggling most and falling below the line? Where should we target and push government for interventions to turn the dial?

Publishing this initial research today is about sharing with others who are trying to do similar things, those making and those trying to influence policy. Partly it’s about sharing the challenge — we think this is a generational problem that will define the priorities of any government for at least the next decade. If we don’t respond to it, the only logical result is a timebomb of debt as people find it impossible to make ends meet.

But it’s more than just a policy challenge — it’s also a tool or lens that can be used to frame our collective response to this challenge. It’s worth being clear that it’s never our intention to offer a whole systems solution to the problem of negative budgets. Put simply, we don’t think we are the right people to do that — it’s clearly much bigger than us and others already have superb ideas on what could be done to, say, push up wages.

Today we’ve given a couple of examples of interventions that could make a real difference — fixing benefit deductions and targeted support on energy bills. We hope others will put forward their ideas and are making it our mission to facilitate and enable this where it helps to do so.

So, what next?

The next step in this will be to scale up our analysis of our own clients to the population level so we can see the real prevalence of negative budgets. We expect these findings to be stark and we know people are clamouring to see them.

This should then give us a framework within which to tackle negative budgets — something we think should increasingly make its way to the top of the political priority list. In a bout of optimism which might run counter to the size of the challenge or the political mood, we genuinely think this can be solved. Every negative budget is essentially a failure of policy — when you look into the detail of individual budgets you can start to see a roadmap for interventions that will make a real difference, not all of which need big investment.

So, please do read our report which kicks this off. And if you think you have ideas or can help, we look forward to working with you!

 

This blog was written by, and appears by kind permission of, Matthew Upton, Director of Policy at Citizens Advice.