After a long wait, a blanket ban on pension cold-calling is expected to come into force next month. It will form part of the Government’s plans to fight scams that have wiped an estimated £1billion from people’s retirement savings.
The ban extends to unsolicited contact via text and email – but comes too late for victims who have already lost huge sums of money in an explosion of fraud cases. Here, The Mail on Sunday explains the key details of the ban – and why it cannot come soon enough.
Hard-working: Gary Savery thought he was investing in bricks and mortar
STORAGE POD SCAM
Seven years ago, Gary Savery received a text message from a sales company called Sanderson Clarke – now defunct – offering him a pension review. Ultimately it led him to lose more than £50,000 of his retirement savings.
Pension planning was at the front of Gary’s mind when he received the text. He had a pension fund amassed over nearly 30 years of work as a bus driver that he could no longer pay into and it was not performing well.
Gary agreed to the review and was visited at home in Essex by a ‘well-dressed’ man representing a company called Henley Retirement Benefit Scheme. He was told to expect an 8 per cent annual return for the first five years, 12 per cent a year thereafter. He could not have been more satisfied.
But it did not take long for things to turn sour.
His pension pot was funnelled into a high-risk investment in storage pods. In 2014, Gary was told Henley had gone bust and it was likely he had lost all of his money.
Gary, who is 48 and married with two adult children, says: ‘All along, I thought I was investing in bricks and mortar not storage pods. I signed up and should have looked into the investments more but I did not. These people are nothing but thieves.’
He is now slogging away to rebuild his finances, working a 13-day fortnight as a ticket inspector on public transport to pay off the mortgage.
Once this is done, he can turn his financial effort back to retirement savings. He is saving into a workplace pension but only a small sum that will not assure him a comfortable retirement.
Gary adds: ‘I am a hard-working guy, but I have little to show for it. I feel as if I put my money on a three-legged horse to win the Grand National.’
He says the forthcoming cold-call ban is welcome but believes fraudsters will find ‘a different way’ to rob people of their crucial retirement savings.
Being hoodwinked could harm your self-worth
Fallout: David Gibb saw a client lose a £50,000 pot
Chartered financial planner David Gibb has seen first-hand the awful fallout from pension cold- calling. A client had a separate pot of money for which Gibb was not responsible – worth £50,000 – which was lost to a scam.
The money made up a fifth of the individual’s retirement savings. Gibb, who works for wealth manager Old Mutual, says it is not uncommon for clients to hold money back to manage themselves. This person – an intelligent retired solicitor and qualified accountant – received an unsolicited call from an ‘extremely professional-sounding and eloquently spoken man’ who sold him an investment in carbon credits.
Gibb says: ‘The fraudster alluded to investments my client had made in the past – which was most likely a shot in the dark. But it resonated and he invested.’
He adds: ‘I did not want to be the one to say his money was lost. It took him a long time to accept he had been scammed. It dented his confidence and self-worth.’
Since then another client sought Gibb’s opinion after receiving a cold-call about investing in a Swedish crypto-currency. It came with sham marketing implying the currency was backed by billionaire Bill Gates and business tycoon Richard Branson.
‘I told him to run for the hills,’ says Gibb.
THE CASE FOR A BAN
Scammers usually contact their victims out of the blue – via phone, text or email. They offer the bait of a pension review or an investment opportunity to the potential victim.
Currently, it is still legal for companies to contact people in this unsolicited way, though in most cases such calls are likely to come from fraudsters with dishonest intentions.
Many claim they can ‘unlock’ pension pots early – before age 55 – which is illegal except under rare circumstances. This also triggers an onerous 55 per cent tax charge from Revenue and Customs.
It is estimated that £27million a month has been lost to scams since rules for accessing pension money were relaxed in 2015 by the Coalition Government.
But this sum may be conservative because many victims suffer in silence and do not report fraud committed against them. Others are unaware they are victims – and will only find out when they try to access their pension cash in the future.
The new ban will make it clear that any unsolicited contact about a person’s pension is illegal.
It is long awaited, having first been suggested back in 2016. But it is expected to become law in a matter of weeks when the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill gets Royal Assent – the necessary stamp of approval from the Queen.
The law will also require pension schemes to nudge people towards impartial pension guidance which can help protect them from scams.
AN EVIL AND PROFITABLE TRADE
Despite a clear need for a pension cold-calling ban, critics say there is more to be done to protect people from vultures preying on their life savings.
Angela Brooks is director of Pension Life, a company which seeks justice for victims of pension fraud. She says: ‘There are many victims now facing partial or total loss of their retirement savings – and still cold-calling has not been banned. Even when it comes in, it is far too late as the cold-calling fraudsters have long since moved offshore. The clattering of the horse’s hooves as the stable door slams will echo as scammers carry on their evil and profitable trade.’
Elaborate: Anthony Locke gambled and bought supercars with money he said was going into investments in the Amazon Rainforest
Michelle Cracknell is chief executive of The Pensions Advisory Service which provides impartial guidance to people looking for help on what to do with their pension funds. She says the ban is a welcome step but points out that fraudsters’ traps are constantly evolving. She says: ‘The ban will not stop pension scams as the pickings are too great.
‘Customers are still being cold-called but we are seeing new methods being employed. For example, contact through social media, following up on people who have previously used a claims company for payment protection insurance redress or those who have completed surveys. Many scams also rely on customers recruiting friends and family.’
In a case last month, Anthony Locke, 33, was jailed for running an elaborate £1million pension liberation scam with his associate Ray King, 54.
The pair, from Dorset, convinced financially desperate customers to transfer their pensions to the sham ‘Successful Pensions’ business, promising ready access to half of the money. The rest, they claimed, would be put into eco-friendly investments to help the Amazon Rainforest.
But Locke, who ran a motoring TV channel on YouTube called Gas Kings, spent the funds on luxury holidays, gambling and supercars – including an Audi R8, an Aston Martin Vantage, a Porsche 911 and an Audi R5.
THE NEED FOR GREATER PUBLICITY
Warning: Angela Brooks says the fraudsters have long since moved offshore
Life coach Joanna Robertson, 60, (name has been changed) was cold-called about her pension and ended up losing £38,000 as a result of a scam. But a ban on cold-calling would not have helped her as she lives in Spain.
Joanna says: ‘There needs to be a big publicity campaign when the cold-call ban becomes law because its success relies on people knowing it exists. It is a lead-sinking feeling to discover your money has been lost to fraudsters who are living the life of Riley on the back of your own hard work.’
Joanna invested pension money via Spanish advisory firm Continental Wealth Management which misappropriated her funds and has since collapsed.
She says: ‘I got a call in 2010 from a competent sounding individual. He then came to my house and showed me some impressive looking financial files on his computer.
‘I opted for a low to medium-risk investment but I did not know enough to ask probing questions.’
After her pension investment underperformed, Joanna was persuaded to move her money for a fee to a different fund, only to make further losses. Along with other savers she was reassured this dip was expected and the funds would recover, but they did not.
Her money had been ploughed into sophisticated, high-risk ‘structured notes’, which are inappropriate investments for most savers.
Ten tell-tale signs that you are being targeted by conmen
1. A cold-call about your pension from a credible sounding salesman. The person might also claim to be from an official body such as Pension Wise, which never makes unsolicited calls.
2. Official-looking websites that often give a PO Box address – usually rented short-term – or a mobile phone number for contact details.
3. A cloned business name. Criminals often pick a trading name closely aligned to that of a regulated company.
So if a person searches for it on the internet the name of the legitimate firm crops up, tricking them into thinking they are dealing with a regulated outfit.
The Financial Conduct Authority lists many of these clones – visit fca.org.uk.
4. Little information on websites or in marketing material detailing the specifics of the investments.
5. A promise of high returns from a low-risk investment.
6. Lack of paperwork, a contract or contact information given out by the salesman calling on the phone or visiting in person.
7. A suggestion that you move your workplace pension to a self-invested personal pension or to a qualifying recognised overseas pension scheme to take advantage of an investment opportunity.
These pension wrappers allow investment freedom – which can be positive. However, they can also be potentially dangerous.
8. You are put under pressure to make a quick decision.
9. Claims to know of tax loopholes that allow you to access a pension early or take large chunks of your fund tax-free.
10. No mention whatsoever of any fees that are going to be levied.
KEEP FUNDS SAFE
The only way to be sure your pension money is being handled properly is to research the company wanting to invest it.
Ensure it is authorised by regulator the Financial Conduct Authority and take regulated financial advice. Check the online register of authorised businesses at register.fca.org.uk.
Speaking to family, friends, your pension provider and Pension Wise can also ensure you deal with a reputable business. Do not make decisions quickly or on your own.
For further help contact The Pensions Advisory Service on 0800 011 3797 or visit pensionsadvisory- service.org.uk.
Over-50s can make a free appointment with Pension Wise to discuss options and potential scams by visiting pensionwise.gov.uk or calling 0800 138 3944.
Find a reputable financial adviser using websites such as unbiased and VouchedFor.
‘I almost fell for a share scam… and then the alarm bells rang’
Cold-calling in a quest either to defraud or persuade you to do something against your best financial interests is not limited to pensions, writes Jeff Prestridge.
Companies looking to earn a fat commission from an insurance mis-selling or personal injury claim are notorious cold-callers, as are scammers probing to get hold of your key bank account details so they can steal the contents.
Web designer David Catchpole was recently a recipient of a cold-call that could have resulted in financial loss if he had not had his wits about him.
Cold-call: Web designer David Catchpole was called by Rowlands Advisors about selling his shares in BT
David, who lives in Ashingdon, Essex, was phoned by a company called Rowlands Advisors which said it was looking to buy his BT shares at a premium for a ‘major shareholder’ ahead of a takeover bid.
A shareholder since British Telecom was privatised in 1984, 71-year-old David was initially suspicious, but the more he heard from the caller, the more he thought the request might be genuine.
He says: ‘At first, alarm bells rang in my head and all I could think of was scam, scam, scam. But it all started to sound above board.’
He was then emailed with a form to complete – a non-disclosure agreement confirming he would not ‘disclose confidential information about the acquisition of BT’ to other parties. They also asked him for some key personal details plus the number of shares he held.
Then alarm bells rang again – and rightly so. Although Rowlands says it is a huge firm and has been in business since 2009, its website was only set up a month ago. Fees for its registration have only been paid for a year. Also, the website’s content has been culled from scam website Allied Capital Consultants.
Tony Hetherington, The Mail on Sunday’s consumer champion, says the call David received has all the hallmarks of a scam which could have resulted in him being asked for money upfront or giving away sufficient personal information to leave him prone to fraud.
David says: ‘It is the first time anything like this has happened to me.’ When Rowlands rang again after sending him the non-disclosure form, he ‘politely’ told them not to contact him again.
Most – not all – nuisance calls can be stopped by registering with the Telephone Preference Service at tpsonline.org.uk. Or call 0345 0700707.