A meeting in Belfast heard from hundreds of small businesses in Northern Ireland who believe they have fallen victim to a scam in which they claim they were missold plasma screens — leaving them significantly out of pocket.
The group of retailers met with representatives from the five main political parties, alongside Retail NI, in order to demand a solution.
The scandal involves now-liquidated Groomsport company Viewble Media UK, which contacted businesses around Northern Ireland offering what was described by one businessman as a “cost neutral” advertising deal.
As part of the deal, shop owners bought a screen from Viewble Media UK at a cost of £299 a month for three years, paying a total sum of almost £11,000.
A second associated company, which is also now liquidated, the Shoppers Network UK Ltd, then rented the screen for advertising, paying the shop owner £299 a month for three years.
The retailers would get their own advert shown on the screen and in neighbouring businesses but shop owners found that the payments from the second company stopped coming.
They had signed finance deals with a company, Grenke, which meant they would owe the £11,000, while the repayments from the advertising stopped materialising as of August last year.
A BBC News NI investigation in June last year found that a similar company, Viewble Media Pty Ltd, had been operating a similar scheme in Australia and had been accused of leaving businesses there almost $31m AUS in debt.
Andrew Bustard has owned Castlederg-based car dealership Top Gear Motors for 25 years. He got a plasma screen fitted in April 2018 and was sold on the scheme being no cost to him.
Now having refused to make repayments to the finance company Grenke, Mr Bustard is over £1,200 in arrears along with a screen of no use to him. The man says he wants answers as to how this could have happened.
“When we signed this contract it was told to be no cost to our business and this turned out to be false,” he said.
“In my view this was a purpose built scheme to entrap businesses.
“The Financial Ombudsman has to take this on board. They have to understand and look at the context of how it was set up that one part could fail like this.
“We sent a letter to Grenke stating our situation. They are still requesting we are make payments, but we are not making any more payments.
“It’s a very big cost to a small business even like ourselves. It is also making us more wary. There has to be more protections put in place in similar situations.”
Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts explained some of the retailers he has spoken to are out of pocket to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds.
“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.
“I am disappointed that Grenke, the finance company, will not even meet with Retail NI to discuss possible solutions and would urge them to engage with us.”
The previous BBC News NI investigation into the scandal in June 2019 discovered that Viewble Media UK Ltd was operating across the UK from Groomsport.
The Belfast Telegraph has contacted Grenke for comment.