This is the blog of British investigative journalist Jason Lewis.
It features articles from my time as Investigations Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and Whitehall and Security Editor of the Mail on Sunday.
I specialise in writing on intelligence and security matters, human and civil rights and the activities of the British State.
Monday, 27 June 2011
Span Text investigation 2
Spam texts: the money trail to the heart of 'no win, no fee'
An investigation by the Sunday Telegraph reveals how companies make money out of 'spam texts'.
The telltale bleep of a mobile phone delivered yet another spam text.
“You have still not claimed the compensation you are due for the accident you had. To claim then pls reply CLAIM. To opt out text STOP.”
It was a message that has become routine to millions of mobile phone users.
But our simple response led The Sunday Telegraph investigation to India and to the heart of Britain’s burgeoning “no win no fee” compensation culture.
At each turn we uncovered money changing hands and laws designed to protect people from irritating interferences in their lives being routinely flouted.
We followed the trail of two similarly worded texts sent from British mobile numbers.
The people behind these spam messages — many of them based as far afield as India and Croatia — use unregistered SIM cards that are discarded after a few hours.
They can pour thousands of messages from the SIMs through computer software that can be operated from anywhere in the world. They cost 2p per message. By responding to each message our phone numbers were passed on to companies in Britain known as “lead generators”.
Experts believe these companies pay £5 to the text senders for each response — the first stage of the money trail.
Our first message resulted in a call from “Andy” who said he worked for “Affiliate Data Finance”, a firm that he said was based in Hampshire but which subsequently proved untraceable. Asked how he had obtained our number, he said: “We go through the files... We just investigate your accident and if they are liable for that and whether you are eligible.
“Basically it is the last chance saloon.”
We presented a false, but routine, compensation claim — a trip on a step outside work resulting in a broken ankle — which meant our call was forwarded to a firm called EM-ME.
EM-ME, registered in Petersfield, Hants, is a “claims farmer” which sends compensation cases to legal firms for them to pursue. It is run by Andy Law, a former advertising executive who describes it as an “ethical” claims management company. The woman in Mr Law’s call centre asked our investigator: “Can I just ask the question of how you were contacted before speaking to me? Did you ever receive a text or a telephone call saying you may be entitled to claim?”
“Yes. Why are you asking that?” replied our investigator.
“Because as a company we don’t actually do that. I just wanted to make that clear. Did you say you had been cold-called?” she said, adding: “Would you say you were cold called?” “I got a text, yes,” replied The Sunday Telegraph.
Undeterred, she said: “Did you ever opt into a survey or a website? Like a lifestyle survey… So you’re happy you’ve made an inquiry and you’ve not got any unexpected telephone calls?”
“Emm, I suppose so, yes,” our investigator replied.
She then said she would pass on our details to “our solicitors”, who pay EM-ME between £300 and £350 for each case.
This weekend Mr Law said that these questions were evidence of his firm’s “three check system” which, he said, was “designed to filter out leads generated by spam texts and cold calls”. Although our investigator was clear that he had received a “spam” text, Mr Law said: “It is in this part of the qualification process that we aim to weed out fraudsters and reject anyone who feels unhappy about the way they were contacted. At no stage does [your investigator] offer dissatisfaction, so we were obliged to pass him through to a legal representative.”
Asked about any due diligence test on firms Mr Law purchased leads from, he said: “I know I am playing with fire. We have only had one other incident like this.” Mr Law said he had so far failed to identify the firm that supplied the lead relating to The Sunday Telegraph case. He added that he did not know who Affiliate Data Finance were.
Meanwhile, the second text we responded to resulted in a call from a far larger business: Accident Advice Helpline.
The £12 million-a-year business runs television advertisements featuring Esther Rantzen, while its joint managing director, Darren Werth, is chairman of the Claims Standards Council, which is campaigning to stop spam text messages. In AAH’s adverts, Ms Rantzen says: “All of my working life I’ve campaigned for people to have access to justice. If you have been injured and someone else is to blame the law says you are entitled to compensation. That’s why I want you to know about the Accident Advice Helpline.” A member of the firm’s call centre told us they had been passed our details by “a company called Tetrus; they do the text marketing. I am calling from a separate company… You know the Accident Advice Helpline from the telly with Esther Rantzen?” Miss Rantzen, who was unavailable for comment, is not accused of wrongdoing.
A further call followed, with another Accident Advice Helpline worker checking details of The Sunday Telegraph’s fictitious personal injury claim and promising to forward it to a solicitor within 14 days.
A spokesman for the firm said: “Our client [Accident Advice Helpline] is extremely conscious of its obligations and responsibilities in relation to marketing activities, particularly in relation to SMS marketing. It would be unlawful for our client, or any other company, to cold call… or make an unsolicited approach” unless someone “opted in” to receiving communications from third parties on some previous date.” To this end the firm carried out “due diligence” and obtained “written confirmation” that the sources of information were “compliant”, the spokesman said. He named “RT Analytics”, a “well established company in Newcastle upon Tyne”, as the source of the lead generated by the text message sent to this paper.
The spokesman added: “However, the difficulty faced by companies in this field… is that whilst due diligence is possible on the companies from whom information is purchased, those companies will in turn purchase information from third parties.”
RT Analytics is run by Chris Imrie, a Newcastle businessman, and is registered at his home in Gosforth.
Mr Imrie was unavailable for comment last night. His profile on the LinkedIn website says he is a “life protection specialist” involved in “lead generation, database building, customer acquisition planning”.
Our investigation into the first text message then made it to the third stage in the money trail, when our call was put through by EM-ME to a solicitors’ firm in Liverpool, Silverbeck Rymer. It represents the tarnished end of the compensation culture. James and Charles Rymer, the senior partners, were disciplined by the Solicitors Regulation Authority for using £117,000 of compensation intended for sick miners to pay referral fees. The SRA found them guilty of three breaches of the Solicitors Code of Practice, including failing to act in the best interests of clients.
The firm wrote to our investigator, saying: “Silverbeck Rymer are specialists in this field, and will do all we can to ensure that your claim is progressed quickly and with the minimum amount of stress.”
If the firm had pursued our “claim” it would have been entitled to a large success fee for gaining our compensation, with the costs recovered from the company it sued on our behalf. It would also have asked us to take out an insurance policy that would have paid its costs had it lost, with a £500 commission from the insurance firm for getting us to sign up.
Yesterday, Rymer’s managing director, Robert Fielding, said the firm had “a clear written policy” that it did not accept claims obtained by cold calling and would investigate any apparent breaches of the policy. He said he had no comment on the previous disciplinary proceedings.