Customers of a Belfast marketing company now at the centre of a police probe have reacted with fury after hundreds of pounds were taken from their accounts without permission – and not paid back.
Absolute Marketing Limited is now under investigation after the company shut its doors without notice in May, leaving customers in the dark and out of pocket.
The company operated discounted hotel deals across Britain and Ireland through annual membership schemes, with customers spending around £200 a year.
Now several of its former customers have said money was taken from their accounts without their permission and has never been repaid.
Those affected include Julie and Nigel Harris from Greenisland.
The pair said they were hundreds of pounds out of pocket after two unauthorised withdrawals from their account by Absolute Marketing – which had operated out of two offices on the Ormeau Road in Belfast.
“We had £199 taken back in April 28. Then £244 was taken in May,” Julie said. “We received an email from the company telling us there had been an error, but it had been corrected – however, we haven’t been paid back.
“We contacted them multiple times but have heard nothing. I’ve already told them we would contact the police and credit card company. I feel like I’ve been taken for a ride.”
The director and proprietor of the firm is listed online as Gareth Campbell, who is aged in his mid-40s. Despite attempts to reach Mr Campbell at several addresses, he has been unavailable for comment.
One former salesman at the firm told the Belfast Telegraph how more than a dozen staff – many of them long-term employees – were told to leave the Ormeau Road offices for good at the end of last month.
He says he has been left in employment limbo after working for the company for a decade. The employee, who did not wish to be identified, said he hadn’t heard from Mr Campbell, who is listed as company director of Absolute Marketing Limited, in around a fortnight.
He said he was now unable to find work elsewhere after the revelations came to light.
“We are trying to clear our names,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. “We are now out of work and the name has now been blackened.
“On Friday, May 30, we turned up for work but were told that was it, we had to be out by 11am.
“I’ve been left in shock. I don’t know how I feel. I want to get a job, I want to get back to work, but I’ve applied for around 50 and have heard nothing back.
“We feel we have been very hard done by.
“It was a long-standing company. We sold our products well and it seemed all above board.”
The company operated out of two properties on the Ormeau Road over the past 10 years.
Yesterday the shutters were down on its most recent office, from where the company had operated since last spring.
Now a host of customers have told this paper of unauthorised withdrawals from their accounts, with many of them still left out of pocket to the tune of hundreds of pounds.
Others who had paid the membership fee have now been left with vouchers they are unable to use.
Earlier this week Trading Standards launched an investigation following the complaints.
Police have also said they are investigating.
“Officers are currently making a number of inquiries and are liaising with colleagues from Trading Standards,” a PSNI spokeswoman said.
‘They never repaid the money, we’re still waiting’
Case study: Philip Donnan (36), accountant, Warrenpoint
“Four or five years ago we had spent roughly £195 a year. We got around three hotel stays and some discounts off food.
“But I then got an email from them in May 2014, saying that they had taken £195 from an account by mistake — the name said Gareth Campbell at the bottom.
“They told me they had taken money from my account, in error, and I would be immediately refunded.
“It wasn’t even taken from my account, it was taken from my wife’s account — they had taken it for security reasons at some stage.
“I was told a reservation was mistakenly booked in my name, and a charge may have come out of my account, but that it was ‘of course immediately rectified once the error was detected’.
“Our bank repaid us the money, but we were never repaid by the company. We are still waiting.”
‘A friend said the phone line was dead, and it didn’t surprise me’
Case study: Gary Briers (54), owner of Ski and Sports, Belfast
“I have been a member for a couple of years. We had been spending about £400 a year and at the time it was a good idea. You got discounted rates at the start — it was all very good. But as time went past, you couldn’t get weekends very often.
“I noticed about four months ago it was getting very difficult to book. A friend then said it was a dead phone line at the office, and it didn’t surprise me.
“I’m now out about £400-500 — we had used the service as a corporate incentive for the staff. It seems the whole thing was dealt with very poorly. I really mind the loss of the incentive to the staff. I’ve previously recommended the company to others, and now I feel guilty because of that.”
‘I asked for a refund, but there is still nothing’
Case study: Woman aged 64, Dungannon
“The company made contact through a cold call and I took the package. Everything came through, but I found it wasn’t suitable.
“I called to ask for a refund — which I was told would happen.
“One man told me the money, £199, was back in my account.
“I was told it would be paid into my bank account but there is still nothing.
“After about a fortnight, when nothing happened, I called back a number of times — I wasn’t able to get through.
“That had been happening for a long time.
“I’m very angry with the whole thing — to be promised I would be refunded and never receiving the money. They have all my debit card details and I’m going to have to make sure that no more money is taken out.”
‘I’m out a total of £450 and I’m very angry about all of this’
Case study: Business owner from Cookstown
“I’ve been dealing with with the company over the last four or five years and everything had been fine. Then, around April, I started receiving phone calls from them, asking about renewing my membership.
“I told them I had already renewed in November. Then got my credit card statement in May and £250 had been taken out. I tried ringing but the phone number was engaged the whole time. Then one day a young girl answered and said someone would call me — but I never heard back.
“The credit card company have now asked me to send the information to them. I’m out a total of £450 including the membership fee I paid. While I understand companies often go through trouble, I’m very angry about all of this.”