There has never been more choice for what Britons can do with their pension. While this freedom is generally welcome, unfortunately it has brought a sharp increase in pension scams attempting to defraud people out of their retirement savings.
British police revealed around £43 million was lost to scammers in the three years that followed the government’s 2014 pension freedoms announcement – a record £8.6 million in March 2017 alone. However, pension industry figures estimate that true losses, including unreported cases, could actually exceed £1 billion.
How common are scams?
Citizens Advice UK estimate a staggering 11 million people received unsolicited calls or texts about pension services just in 2015/16.
Not only are scamming attempts widespread, their tactics can be highly sophisticated and convincing. A Citizens Advice survey revealed only 12% of people who were confident they would be able to spot a scam were able to do so. That means nine out of ten missed the common warning signs.
Where are scams targeted?
Scammers look for opportunities to separate you from your pension funds, most commonly through transfers.
‘Defined benefit’ or ‘final salary’ UK pensions are particularly lucrative, as the unusually high transfer values being offered by some providers can amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds. Transfers to a Qualifying Recognised Overseas Pension Scheme (QROPS) are also targeted. For many British expatriates in France, a QROPS provides a suitable way to bring their pension with them and unlock tax, estate planning and currency benefits.
There can genuinely be significant advantages in transferring your UK pensions, but you should take extreme care to do what is right for you while avoiding falling foul of scams. It is crucial to explore all your options and seek regulated, personalised advice before taking any action.
How can you spot a scam?
While around two in five pension scams start with a cold call or text, they can also stem from unsolicited contact in person, online or through the post.
Tell-tale signs include offering access to your pension before the age of 55 (‘pension liberation’) or unusually high and guaranteed returns, typically over 5%. Some include cash incentives, such as ‘commission rebates’. They often offer unusual or ‘exotic’ investment opportunities; recent examples have included vineyards, storage pods and even truffle trees.
Generally, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is; no investment is guaranteed. Once you transfer your pension, it is too late. You could not only end up losing some or all of your pension benefits, you could face a UK tax bill of 55% plus penalty fees.
Something else to be aware of is that many companies offering pension services are unregulated. Whether they aim to defraud you or not, these are unprotected investments that risk losing your money, with no opportunity for compensation if things go wrong.
How can you protect yourself?
Be extremely suspicious of anyone contacting you out of the blue offering a ‘free pensions review’. Before giving out your personal details, check the ScamSmart website (www.fca.org.uk/scamsmart) and thoroughly research the person or company you are dealing with. A simple online search can reveal whether an adviser is regulated or on any warning registers. You could also look for consumer reviews, ask around your local community and follow up references. In any case, do not sign anything under pressure and without fully understanding what you are getting into.
Whether you are a British resident or live in France, you should take professional advice and use a provider that is authorised and regulated for the conduct of pension business by the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). All regulated advisers should carry out a high level of due diligence when recommending the full range of options for your particular circumstances.
However, make sure you still check for quality. An FCA study of pension ‘mis-selling’ concluded that less than half of people transferring final salary pensions did so as the result of ‘suitable’ advice. In practice, many people benefit more from staying put and receiving a guaranteed retirement income for life than cashing-in for a one-off payment. Worse still, the FCA found only 35% were given good advice on where to reinvest their transferred funds, “opening up the risk of pension savings ending up in inappropriate or scam investments”.
Make sure your adviser puts your interests above their commission. They should take account of your needs, objectives, personal circumstances and risk appetite to find a tailor-made solution for you and your life in France.
For many people, pensions play a key role in determining their financial security through retirement, so getting it wrong could have serious consequences. It can only take a moment to lose a lifetime of savings, but with careful planning and suitable professional advice, you can both protect and make the most of what you have for years to come.
This article should not be construed as providing any personalised investment advice. You should take advice for your circumstances.
Blevins Franks is the leading international tax and wealth management advisers to British nationals living in Europe. Contact: Freephone UK: 0800 668 1381, Freephone France: 0805 112 163, or visit www.blevinsfranks.com.
Tax rates, scope and reliefs may change. Any statements concerning taxation are based upon our understanding of current taxation laws and practices which are subject to change. Tax information has been summarised; an individual is advised to seek personalised advice.