Money Marketing went undercover on a mystery-shopping exercise in January and on two out of five visits, NatWest’s Money Sense advisers provided quotes for the bank’s own mortgages.
The new study by Which? found that just four out of 20 MoneySense sessions attended by researchers provided the impartial information advertised, without any attempt either at or after the meeting to interest the customer in NatWest products.
During six of the visits, Which? says the adviser spoke exclusively about NatWest products and in two of these, there was no mention of shopping around.
In the other 10 visits, the researcher was passed on to a customer service adviser or the MoneySense adviser ended the session and went on to speak exclusively about NatWest products.
In its marketing materials, NatWest describes the service as “completely focused on helpful guidance” and “not linked to endorsing or selling products”.
Aifa director general Chris Cummings says the findings show that the service is merely “a slick selling machine”.
He says: “It shows the FSA’s financial promotions regime is not fit for purpose as the regu- lator has allowed larger firms to run rings round it.
NatWest should undertake a review of all customers who have come through this service and ended up with one of its products to ensure there has been no detriment.”
A NatWest spokeswoman says the advisers have been trained and accredited by the Consumer Credit Counselling Service and claims it is benefiting thousands of consumers.
She says: “We regularly conduct our own internal reviews of the service and this report certainly does not reflect our experience. We have received excellent customer feedback.
“Referring a consumer to a customer service adviser at the end of the MoneySense session is entirely appropriate if they have asked the adviser for product-related information.”
She says NatWest will look into the findings in detail.
An FSA spokesman would not comment on the NatWest service specifically but says there is no bias in its regulation of firms.
He says: “Our work on financial promotions has resulted in over £1.5m in fines on large and small firms since 2004.
“The industry and consumers can help us by telling us if they see an advert that they feel is unfair, unclear or misleading, so we can investigate.”