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9 October 2008
Trading standards officers in the West Midlands have stepped up their investigation into the operators of a premium rate helpline following a flurry of complaints.

Benefits Helpline homepage

In August we originally reported on our concerns regarding Benefits Helpline.

Now trading standards officers in the West Midlands are working with colleagues in other parts of the country and the police to discuss the growing number of complaints.

Benefits Helpline claims to be offering “expert” advice via a premium rate phone line – charges stand at £1.50 a minute. Yet our investigation and enquiries made by others suggest the quality of advice on offer is poor, outdated and irrelevant.

Together with other organisations and individuals we have been registering our concern and now trading standards in the West Midlands, where it is believed the parent company is based, have responded to a series of formal complaints.

“We have received four official complaints regarding the Benefits Helpline, together with a large number of others relating to other premium rate helplines apparently operated by the same company,” explained a trading standards spokeswoman.

“We are concerned about the quality and validity of the advice being provided and the high charges imposed for phone calls.

“We are also sharing some of the information we have gathered to date with colleagues in other local authority areas. We have also held preliminary discussions with the police regarding the activities of these helplines.”

Our own investigation started amid concerns that the company behind the helpline were exploiting vulnerable people and failing to provide the advice they promise.

There is also the wider issue of how companies like this are allowed to offer such a useless service, whilst collecting sensitive personal data about financial information from callers.

We uncovered contact details for the Benefits Helpline and a director of the parent company. However, repeated attempts to make contact with those behind the company have failed and we have been unable to gain access to the call centre and head office based in the West Midlands.

Other helplines have also been in the news recently.

The Mail on Sunday carried an investigation into a Norfolk-based firm called Digital Select, which advertises the Child Benefit Information premium rate phone line on one of its websites.

The newspaper discovered the helpline is charging parents up to £28 for child benefit information that is available from the Government for free.

It prompted calls for industry regulator PhonepayPlus, which supervises premium-rate phone lines, to take immediate action.

“The people running these so-called helplines are preying on the unwary and it’s pretty unpleasant,” said Labour MP Mark Todd said. “If they offer nothing more than what you can get from official sources, the regulator should close them down.”

And Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone highlighted one of the biggest issues regarding these helplines: “People searching for information about benefits need help, not exorbitant phone charges. Despite the disclaimers, anyone glancing at the website would assume it was official.”

With enquiries into Benefits Helpline also continuing, hopefully we can continue to increase awareness about such bogus advice lines.