Advertising deal business owners come together in Belfast

By Peter Coulter

image captionMore than 200 small business owners who believe they were mis-sold deals attended the meeting

More than 200 businesses owners who believe they were mis-sold advertising plasma screens attended a meeting in Belfast to find a way forward.

Some of the firms have been left owing more than £10,000 after advertising deals they signed up to collapsed.

The meeting was held after a BBC News NI investigation revealed the extent of the problem.

Business owners from around the UK travelled to Northern Ireland to attend Wednesday night's meeting.

As part of the agreement, business owners signed a three-year deal with advertising screen supplier Viewble Media UK Ltd, in which they agreed to pay £299 a month on the understanding they would be compensated by the sale of adverts for other businesses.

They have told BBC News NI they did not realise that as part of the paperwork, they had agreed to finance deals worth almost £11,000 per screen, which they would have to pay regardless of whether they were making any money from advertising sales.

Finance was arranged on behalf of the owners, many of whom were unaware of the small print pointing out they would be liable if anything went wrong.

Viewble Media, which was based in Bangor, County Down, went bust last June but was taken over by Rhino Media Group, which said it would make the repayments to companies.

However that firm has now also closed so businesses are not receiving any more payments but still have to pay out what they owe as part of the deal.

The majority of the companies who attended the meeting are in finance deals with a company called Grenke.

In a statement to BBC News NI, Grenke said it believed its leasing and finance products were clear and transparent.

"Indeed, whilst we are not contractually obliged, Grenke does apply enhanced due diligence to ensure customers are fully aware of any finance contract that they are entering into," it said.

"Set against this background it is difficult to understand why customers believe they have been miss-sold the finance contract and claim they were unaware of it."

media captionHampshire businesses owners Stephen and Adrian are two of those who have been affected

Alan Collingwood, who runs a shop in Aghalee, County Antrim, and took out a deal to get two screens put up in his shop, is one of those who helped organise the meeting.

He owes thousands of pounds to a finance company.

"What we're trying to do with this is co-ordinate our activities and send out a clear message that we won't put up with this." he said.

"We should not be liable for this debt".

image captionCharles Cartwright is hoping the group can lobby the government for support

Ice cream manufacturer Charles Cartwright, from Huddersfield, flew to Belfast to attend the meeting.

"I thought if I come over then I might be able to find out something and there might be a way out of this scheme," he said.

"I'm just hoping that if you get a lot of people together and we all join together then we might get some support from government."

The businesses are being supported by Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts who said the issues were causing great difficulty for businesses.

"This is a huge problem for a big section of our membership who are already struggling with high business costs such as rates and energy," he said.

"We have been in contact with the Financial Ombudsman and would urge our MLAs to support our members in finding a solution.

"Our members are clearly not getting what they signed up for and need to be released from their finance agreements for these redundant plasma screens."

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