Mao Mau | 13.08.2003 10:52 | Sheffield
a new breed of private benefit claims advisor is emerging, ripping off the most vulnerable in the UKBenefit sharks prey on vulnerable claimants, say charities
Raekha Prasad and Alison Benjamin
Wednesday August 13, 2003
Benefit consultants who charge disabled or elderly people for help with welfare applications have been labelled "advice sharks" for targeting the vulnerable.
Charities and campaigners say there are signs of a "worrying growth" in private consultants offering to secure state benefits on a "no win, no fee" basis. There is evidence that some are resorting to techniques usually seen in high-pressure sales operations such as cold calling. Commercial benefit consultants are not regulated, unlike independent financial advisers.
They advertise their services in local newspapers or by telephoning potential customers. A fee of up to £500 is charged if an application is successful.
The charity Age Concern warns the number of pensioners targeted by private consultants is set to increase when the means-tested pension credit is introduced in October, as half of older people are entitled to it.
In one case, investigated by the Guardian, a disabled retired woman received a backdated payment of £639 for high disability living allowance - half of which she has to pay to Steve de Bondt, a private benefit consultant who helped her to apply.
An advertisement placed by Mr De Bondt in local newspapers claims that £183.35 a week in state benefits or pensions "should be yours if you have arthritis, walking difficulties, breathlessness, dizziness or sleeping problems" above a telephone number for a "free no obligation consultation".
His fee for a successful claim is half the sum of the backdated cheque his client receives from the Department for Work and Pensions.
The advertising standards authority is investigating a complaint that the advert is misleading because it implies that having any of these conditions guarantees a right to state benefits.
Mr De Bondt told the Guardian: "You don't automatically get benefits if you have any of these complaints. What I have to do is advise the client on the free telephone line whether, in may opinion, they'd be entitled to anything."
Mr De Bondt, who is a former head of a local authority welfare rights unit, claimed to have advised more than 2,000 clients in the south-east and Cambridge.
He denied he was targeting vulnerable people. "We're not so much advice sharks as advice saviours," he said, arguing that there was a "vast gap" in benefit information and that he offered a "specialist advice service".
Agencies offering free benefit advice are concerned that state benefits are not ending up in the wallets of those entitled to them.
"The complexity of the system is partly responsible for the rise in private advice," said a spokeswoman for Citizen's Advice, a charity which does not charge for help. "If it was simpler, people wouldn't feel the need to pay."
Charities say there is a huge potential market in private advice, given that up to £4.5bn a year goes unclaimed in means-tested benefits.
Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman, is worried about the system being abused by "advice sharks". He is calling for a ceiling on the fees charged. "There should be a cap, or else vulnerable people will loose a chunk of the money they are owed," he said.
A government spokeswoman said there were no plans to regulate private consultants. "The best source of advice is our staff and we'd hope people would come to us directly. We're free, as are Citizen's Advice bureaux," she said.
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