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Pushy sites ‘encouraging people with mental health problems into debt’

Vicky Shaw, PA Personal Finance Correspondent
·3-min read

Pushy online retailers are leaving people with mental health problems at risk of accumulating significant debts from shopping sprees, according to a charity.

Buy now, pay later deals, “one-click” purchases and pushy personalised marketing messages are leaving many people with mental health issues at risk of financial harm, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute said.

It estimates that around three million people with mental health problems have struggled to stay in control of their spending during lockdown – in part due to the design of websites.

Ahead of Black Friday on November 27, the charity is calling on retailers to offer customers more tools to manage online spending – such as the choice to opt out of buy now, pay later services, or to have a cooling off period before completing purchases.

It is also calling for action from regulators to ensure that online shopping sites comply with consumer protection laws.

Online shopping offers a vital service, particularly in 2020 when many physical shops have been closed.

But Money and Mental Health said the design of retail websites is making it difficult for people with poor mental health, many of whom struggle with symptoms such as impulsivity, reduced concentration and low morale, to stay in control of their spending.

It said a survey of 2,000 UK adults found people who have experienced mental health problems in the past two years are twice as likely as the population generally to have spent more than they can afford online (29% versus 12%), or to have purchased goods they do not need (47% versus 23%).

The pandemic has compounded these problems, it said.

A quarter (26%) of adults with recent mental health problems said they have struggled to stay in control of online spending during lockdown – amounting to three million people across the UK.

More than half (56%) of people surveyed said buy now, pay later services make it too easy to get into debt, and two-fifths (42%) of those with recent mental health problems said such services had been harder to resist since lockdown.

Money and Mental Health, which was set up by consumer champion Martin Lewis, is urging the Competition and Markets Authority to ensure that online shopping sites comply with consumer protection laws, for example not pressurising customers into impulsive purchases.

Helen Undy, chief executive of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, said: “Online retail can be a lifeline for people living with mental health problems who may struggle to leave the house, especially during the pandemic.

“But pushy sites and tempting buy now, pay later offers can cause people to spend more than they can afford, risking both their financial and mental health.

“This is particularly challenging in lockdown, with many of us spending longer online, bombarded by adverts telling us that the latest new thing will make us feel better. At its worst, this can leave people in thousands of pounds of debt, with a single day’s shopping spree causing years of misery.

“With more people facing mental health problems this year, as we approach Black Friday retailers must take action to help customers stay in control. Simple steps, like making it easier for customers to avoid buy now, pay later options, could help people avoid serious financial harm at this difficult time.”

A Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) spokesman said: “Protecting consumers, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances, is a priority for the CMA. In recent years, we have taken action against businesses employing pressure selling tactics in the online hotel booking and secondary ticket sectors.

“The CMA is committed to taking further action as required against companies whose practices towards vulnerable consumers break consumer law. We will also advise Government if we think that consumer protection law needs to adapt to new harmful business practices.”