Whistle blowers to be thanked for FCA investigation
The mis-selling of insurance
Following a whistle blowing report and investigation, The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has fined Carphone Warehouse for mis-selling insurance. It found that the company had sold mobile phone insurance and technical support (called Geek Squad) to people who didn’t need it.
Carphone Warehouse FCA fine
The FCA fined Carphone Warehouse £41,582,300. However, Carphone Warehouse was given a 30% discount for agreeing with the findings. So it will pay £29,107,600.
How Carphone Warehouse mis-sold insurance
The FCA investigated a period over 8 years (1 December 2008 to 30 June 2015). Sales of Geek Squad policies were worth over £444.7 million in this period. The FCA found a number of issues relating to mis-selling and these included:
Carphone Warehouse did not give sales assistants appropriate training. For example, they did not asses customer’s needs as to whether the insurance was required. Some customers had home insurance or bank account insurance for instance that would cover them.
Sales staff were trained in “objection handling”, with the focus being on overcoming customer objections rather than assessing whether the product was suitable for the customer.
A large number of policies were cancelled early. For example in January 2014 30% of policies were cancelled within the first three months of inception. Despite this being an indicator of high risk of mis-selling Carphone Warehouse did not consider it.
When customers complained about the insurance sale, Carphone Warehouse failed to properly investigate and fairly consider their complaints. So valid complaints regarding mis-selling were not upheld and it contributed to the inaccurate picture of mis-selling indicators.
Whistleblowers to thank for Carphone Warehouse investigation and fine
It was Carphone Warehouse employees not customers who brought this matter to light.
Mark Steward, Executive Director of Enforcement and Market Oversight at the FCA, said:
“Without whistleblowers coming forward, these practices may never have come to light. In the past few years, whistleblowers have contributed critical intelligence to the enforcement actions we have taken against firms and individuals.”
How to complain if you have been mis-sold phone insurance
The FCA says “Customers of The Carphone Warehouse who think that they may have been mis-sold Geek Squad should contact the firm directly (by telephone: 0800 049 6190, by post: Geek Squad, PO Box 358, Southampton, SO30 2PJ or on-line www.geeksquad.co.uk/contact/complaints). If customers are not content with the firm’s response, they may then refer the matter to the Financial Ombudsman Service.”
Today (27/02/19) the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) announced that it has upheld a complaint against BT. The complaint was received from Virgin Media (the irony) regarding a national press advert and claims on the BT website seen 19 May 2018. The ASA listed the below on its website regarding the complaint:
“a. The press ad included the claim “UK’s most powerful Wi-Fi vs. major broadband providers” as a feature of the Infinity broadband package. The claim also appeared as a feature of the Unlimited Infinity package. The ad featured an image of the BT Smarthub.
b. The BT website featured the headline claim “BT Business Smart Hub. The UK’s most powerful business wi-fi signal vs. major broadband providers*”. Further text stated “*Better than all other major UK business broadband providers, giving you the strongest signal furthest from the hub. Tests prove it”.”
Virgin challenged the claims saying that they were misleading and could not be substantiated.
In short, the ASA found that BT broke rules on Misleading advertising, Substantiation, Exaggeration and Comparisons with identifiable competitors.
ASA action against BT
The ads must not appear again in their current forms. The ASA has instructed BT “… not to claim that their routers were “the UK’s most powerful” unless they could demonstrate that they could provide a stronger signal than other major providers when subjected to other forms of non-Wi-Fi interference, and unless they could provide recordings of the levels of all types of interference when each router was tested to demonstrate that each router was subjected to consistent levels of interference.”
BT has previous for breaching the ASA code
The ASA has received a number of complaints about BT’s advertising over the years. Most have been upheld resulting in BT not being allowed to show ads in the same format. They referred to a variety of adverts, website, emails, publications and TV. Various issues were raised and investigated, upheld and action was taken against BT 11 times from May 2014.
BT is not alone. Put in any other telecom provider and you will find similar. When I asked the ASA about BT’s track record a spokesperson said that it needed to take a proportional view. “BT produce thousands of ads a year across media in a highly competitive sector. In that context, a handful of upheld rulings points towards an advertiser that, by and large, plays by the rules. It would be different, say, if BT produced 20 ads a year and we found them to have broken the rules on several occasions. As a proportion of the number of ads they produce, which is a prolific amount, the number of issues to crop up is low.”
Does the ASA have any real powers?
The ASA investigates complaints and tells companies that ads cannot appear in the same form again. Is it just a slap on the wrist? The adverts have run so the companies don’t lose anything?
Another issue is the time it takes for the ASA to investigate. So many months have passed by the time the ASA has made its judgement that any consumers who took on a service or bought a product on the claims of an advert have already been stung.
The ASA says that it bans adverts that break the rules so they can’t appear again. It says that the company receives negative publicity/reputation damage when it is at the wrong end of an ASA ruling. However, how many people look at ASA rulings on a regular basis? And how many of the investigations reach the media? A spokesperson for the ASA said “An investigation and having an ad campaign banned costs the company involved time and money in responding to our queries and providing evidence to back up their claims. It can also cost a company money, in some instances a significant amount, if we ban an ad campaign that is planned to have a long run.”
The ASA claims that rulings can affect share prices. They say this on the back of conversations with companies saying only that the companies would need to provide this evidence.
“The majority of advertisers work with us, are committed to responsible advertising and agree to follow our rulings. There are sanctions in place for those who are unwilling or unable to work with us. These include prohibiting an advertiser media space – we liaise with media space owners who won’t run their ads – removing paid search ads for the company, mandatory pre-vetting of ads and. ultimately referral of non-compliant advertisers to our legal backstop, Trading Standards who can and do have statutory powers. They can issue fines and prosecute offenders. In some instances this can involve advertisers being sentenced to prison.”
So in effect the real financial damage comes when and if Trading Standards gets involved or if the case hits shares which in essence can only happen if the case hits the media. With the cuts to Trading Standards budgets the likelihood of any local branch taking action against a company is remote.
What can consumers do?
Consumers should continue to report any issues they see with advertising to the ASA. Some issues do hit the media. Such as the Virgin Media story in 2018 (and the ASA refused to investigate that one!) and the Amazon story in 2018 where it told Amazon to ditch ‘guaranteed next-day delivery’ claim which did stop an ongoing advert. many of the complaints investigated come from just one complaint received.