Claims management companies are presenting car crash victims with bills for tens of thousands of pounds after posting advertisements made to look like they lead to legitimate insurance websites on search engines.
Last month, a judgment in a case regarding search engine manipulation was handed down in Matthew McNally v Aviva Insurance Limited in Portsmouth Combined Courts. The judge found on the side of Aviva, which was represented by insurance law firm Keoghs.
The case clearly demonstrates the huge risk to innocent consumers and motorists of getting caught up in search engine ad spoofing and how it can lead to them being misled into, potentially, being liable to the credit hire company for thousands of pounds of credit hire charges that they had absolutely no idea they were incurring.
It revolved around a multi-vehicle collision in horrendous snowy conditions on March 1st, 2018. Mr McNally was not liable and tried to contact his insurer to report the accident, recover his car and obtain a courtesy car.
The Claimant, from his smartphone, googled the telephone number for his insurance company. However, due to the increasingly prevalent issue of Google advert spoofing, he unwittingly contacted a claims marketing company who then referred him to a credit hire organisation called Spectra Drive Limited based in the North West of England.
The Claimant was misrepresented into a credit hire contract by them and could have been liable for credit hire charges of over £27,000.00.
The case proceeded to trial on the 10th December 2019. At the trial, the Claimant confirmed he had no idea that he had been speaking to a claims management company or a credit hire company and had no intention of doing so. He gave evidence that had he known this or had any idea that he could, himself, be personally liable for such charges he would have terminated the call immediately.
Both the Claimant and the trial Judge accepted that he had been misrepresented by Spectra Drive Limited into electronically signing documents of which he had little or no understanding and certainly had no comprehension that the vehicle provided was a not a courtesy car provided by his insurers but, instead, an expensive credit hire vehicle.
Concerns were also raised at trial with regard to the bona fides of the documentation provided by the credit hire organisation. Two credit hire invoices were disclosed on behalf of Mr McNally, both bearing the exact same electronic signature, the second of which bore a significantly increased daily rate of hire. Mr McNally gave clear evidence at the trial that he had never seen the second invoice until well after Court proceedings had been commenced. A mitigation statement had also been included within the credit hire payment pack upon which someone (not the Claimant) had added handwritten notes. Again, the Claimant gave evidence that he had not done so.
At the hearing, the trial Judge had no hesitation in dismissing the claims for credit hire and storage charges on the basis that the contract(s) upon which the claims were based were wholly unenforceable against the Claimant by the CHO. The Judge was highly critical of the CHO and accepted that the Claimant had been knowingly and deliberately misled.
The Judge commented: “…the provision of the car on the basis on which it was provided…came about as a consequence of a misrepresentation by the call handler with whom he was speaking.”
He went on to say: “….the individual dealing with the call clearly being cognisant of that fact [that the Claimant believed he was speaking to his motor insurer], nonetheless allowed the conversation to continue and the transaction to proceed knowing its position was not truthful.”
With regard to the suspect documentation, the Judge was even more critical saying:
“Of more concern to me is the document….which is the form of authority and mitigation questionnaire. Whilst that document is signed by docu-sign…it is clear to me that the document was signed as a blank document and was subsequently completed by, one can only guess, somebody at Spectra Drive in manuscript. I find that a dubious and suspicious practice and concerning to the extent of the bona fides of the whole transaction.”.
Claims for credit hire and storage totalling over £28,000.00 were dismissed. However, the trial Judge did not stop there and added Spectra into the proceedings and ordered them to file a statement as to why they should not pay the Defendant’s costs of the dismissed heads of loss.
Fraser McAndry, Partner at Keoghs (which represented Aviva) said: “Insurance companies always strive to assist their customers in the event of an accident and these entities obstruct that service to their own ends and for profit.
“I would urge all motorists to save the telephone number for their insurance company in their mobile phone’s contacts and/or carry contact information in their car so that they do not have to rely on a Google search which could, potentially, lead to a situation such as in this case.
“It may be advisable to have the insurer’s verified mobile application for ease of contact if needed. Further, the motorist should always double check who it is they are speaking to and ensure that it is, indeed, their insurer. Lastly, always check and read any documentation VERY carefully and not readily sign documentation, the contents and consequences of which the motorist is innocently unaware of.
“This case clearly demonstrates the huge risk to innocent consumers and motorists of getting caught up in Google ad spoofing and how it can lead to them being misrepresented into, potentially, being liable to the credit hire company for thousands of pounds of credit hire charges that they had absolutely no idea they were incurring. Unfortunately Keoghs deal with many hundreds of suspicious credit hire claims each year and I fear many other motorists will fall into the trap and potentially face paying huge fees if they don’t take the necessary precautions.”
Richard Hiscocks, Director of Motor and Casualty Claims, Aviva, said: “We are here to help our customers and pay their claims – that is what people pay their premium for, after all. So when we hear about customers who are trying to contact us after a car accident but instead are tricked into contacting one of the money-hungry claims firms via their Google search, we are concerned for a couple of reasons.
“First, when a customer enters into a credit agreement with these companies, such as for a replacement vehicle, the customer is ultimately responsible for paying those costs if they cannot be recovered by the insurance company. In the case Aviva defended, the sum in question was £27,000. For most of us, the idea that we could unwittingly be exposing ourselves to tens of thousands of pounds of debt is deeply upsetting.
“Secondly, these unnecessary, inflated costs are usually paid for by the at-fault insurer, which in turn pushes up motor insurance premiums for all of us. Aviva will continue to fight these dubious practices and egregious costs on behalf of our customers, but we also hope that consumers will take note of the sharp practices used by claims firms when conducting a Google search on their mobile device. I cannot emphasise it enough: make sure you have your insurer’s telephone number stored in your phone and also your policy details so that you can avoid these scam companies and let your insurer handle your claim.”