A personal injury claimant has had his credit hire claim dismissed because he was the victim of a spoof Google advert that misled him into believing that he had called his insurer after the accident.
Insurer Aviva has warned that the case of Matthew McNally – who was found by Deputy District Judge Printer in Portsmouth to be an honest witness – highlights the risk to innocent motorists of getting caught up in what it called “search engine ad spoofing”
After being involved in a multi-vehicle collision in snowy conditions, Mr McNally tried to contact his insurer to report the accident, recover his car and obtain a courtesy car.
He used his smart phone to Google the telephone number for his insurance company. However, he actually contacted a claims marketing company which then referred him to a credit hire company.
Thinking he had been referred by his insurer for a free courtesy car, he unwittingly entered into a credit hire contract and could have been liable for charges of over £27,000.
Liability was admitted. At trial on the heads of claims, DDJ Printer accepted Mr McNally’s evidence that 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 said that, had he known this or had any idea that he could be personally liable for the credit hire charges, he would have ended the call immediately.
Both the claimant and the judge accepted that he had been misrepresented into electronically signing documents of which he had little understanding.
DDJ Printer said: “Whilst in an ideal world everybody reads everything, it is not surprising that perhaps from a mobile phone at the roadside, reading such documentation as thoroughly as one might, might not occur. I am satisfied that he was perhaps not fully cognisant with every term of the document.
“I am satisfied that in relation to the evidence that I have been given today that the claimant very clearly understood that he had no worry about incurring charges, given what was said to him.”
DDJ Printer dismissed the claims for credit hire and storage charges on the basis that the contracts upon which they were based were unenforceable against the claimant. He found the car was provided “as a consequence of a misrepresentation” by the call handler to whom Mr McNally was speaking.
He added: “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.”
The judge continued: “Of more concern to me is the document which appears in the bundle… which is the form of authority and mitigation questionnaire.
“Whilst that document is signed by docu-sign again by the claimant on 1 March 2018, 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 [the credit hire company] in manuscript.
“I find that a dubious and suspicious practice and concerning to the extent of the bona fides to the whole transaction.”
DDJ Printer went on to add the credit hire company to the proceedings and ordered it to file a statement as to why it should not pay the defendant’s costs of the dismissed heads of loss.
Fraser McAndry, the partner at Keoghs who represented Aviva, said: “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 at Aviva, added: “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.”