Customer deposits and insolvency

As a licensed insolvency practitioner I am often asked to advise directors who are in a very dark place – whose company is on the brink of liquidation. I guess you might be in such a place?


Insolvency law requires that when a company is insolvent, and even when its solvency is in doubt, its directors have a duty to place the interests of creditors above those of themselves and the shareholders. The law looks at it this way – you’ve been given the privilege of limited liability; a cost of that privilege is that you have to do the right thing at the right time for those innocent third parties you might hurt by your actions.  Pretty much common sense, but can be difficult to implement in the real world.

If you don’t place the interests of the creditors above yours or the company’s, you as a director expose yourself to being disqualified for 7-10 years, and could see you personally paying compensation for your ‘wrongdoing’.  You could even be forced into personal bankruptcy.  And in the most severe cases, where a lot of the public’s money is lost and you continue to take money long after a judge thinks you should have known you would not be able to supply the goods or services that have been paid for, you could even go to prison.

The penalties for getting it wrong are severe so it’s vital, if you normally take deposits or payment for goods or services up front, especially from the public, that you get advice from an insolvency expert.  Take that advice at the earliest possible opportunity.  And then follow it. Be aware that turning a blind eye or ignorance is no excuse, this is something you’d be a fool not to address.

When I get involved with companies in this position the first thing I have to do is explore with the directors whether they should allow the company to continue to trade at all or whether they shut simply shut up shop.  This may sound harsh to you, especially as it’s your business and you have sunk so much time, money and effort into it, but all the other questions that follow on depend on it.  If you have come to me for advice early and you have forecasts showing that things are likely to get better, the answer is often that you can allow the company to continue trading. Often though the forecasts show a worsening position or are not certain to be achieved – in either case you should think seriously about protecting customer deposits, ring-fencing them so the customer gets their money back if things don’t go to plan.

The safest way to do this is either to stop accepting deposits.  The next safest is pay them into a trust bank account and only release the cash into your company’s own account as and when the goods or service are delivered. Both of these options make an already tight cash position worse and could make your turnaround plans unworkable.   Either way you have to manage your cash position.   If you choose not to do either of these and continue to accept deposits, you need hard evidence supporting that decision. And you should continue to revise that information and monitor the decision. This is an area where you might need my help.

How important is it you take and follow professional advice?

It’s vital. You see taking customer deposits can expose you to a wrongful trading and/or a fraudulent trading action – the first civil, the second civil and criminal action.  Case law has determined that ignorance, a lack of knowledge, skill or experience, and a failure to take all possible steps to minimise deposit creditors’ losses once the company is past the point of no return is no excuse. And that’s why you need my help.

Let’s now look into a real life case … a few years ago but the principles remain true today…

Uno plc and its subsidiary World of Leather were large retailers of furniture to the public. Furniture was bought in from manufacturers after a customer order had been placed. Customers paid a deposit when they placed the order and paid the balance on delivery.

They got into financial difficulties. Their directors allowed the companies to continue to trade for four months while investigating options for restructuring the businesses. During this time they held discussions with venture capitalists and competitors, none of which were successful and the companies were placed into administration. By then, the deposit creditors were owed £26 million. Unsecured creditors would receive nothing.

The companies had continued to accept customer deposits during that four-month period. Those deposits were not placed in a separate trust account, even though the directors knew that the company was having problems. In fact during that four-month period, the company actively sought to take more cash deposits from customers as part of a strategy to increase the money in the companies to prevent them from going under. Unsuspecting customers were encouraged to pay in full for their furniture in order to qualify for a substantial discount or early delivery.

Were the directors liable to repay those deposits?   Were the directors unfit to be involved in the management of a company?

In their defence, the directors argued two things:

• While they were investigating options for restructuring there was a reasonable prospect that the companies could avoid insolvent liquidation and
• After they became aware that the company had no such prospects, they took every step to minimise potential losses to creditors.

In particular, they claimed that by continuing to accept customer deposits— in fact, increasing them—they improved the cash flows of the business in line with a viable rescue plan that, if successful, would have enabled the companies to avoid liquidation.

The directors produced evidence of their plan which was based on accurate, timely financial information. They also showed that they had taken, and acted in accordance with, appropriate professional insolvency advice throughout.   In summary, they had made informed decisions.

The court decided that the directors were not guilty of wrongful trading and should not be disqualified. The judge explained that a director is not unfit and will not disqualified merely because he knowingly allowed a company to trade and take customer deposits while insolvent.

Key to the case were the following:

1. The directors had continued access to reliable financial information as to the existing financial position and forecasts demonstrating the proposed rescue plan.
2. The directors obtained and followed full legal and professional advice in allowing the companies to continue to trade and take deposits.
3. There was a huge amount of documentation and written evidence that supported and evidenced the directors’ decisions.
4. The directors not only kept their major creditors informed of the companies’ situation, they told them of their strategy to restructure the business, and got them to buy in to the plan. The point is they were not just trusting to luck. Not every business can do this – it’s particularly difficult for a small business to do.
5. The judge said that company directors have no duty to segregate customer deposits once a company gets in financial difficulty. Continuing to pay monies into the general company account is not on its own a reason to disqualify a director, it is not irrefutable evidence of improper or dishonest conduct, a lack of probity or incompetence.
6. Based on the legal and professional advice they received, the directors formed a reasonable belief that there was a reasonable prospect of finding a satisfactory outcome for the creditors. They held this belief properly and honestly based on hard written evidence and professional advice.
7. The directors made no effort to shirk their responsibilities, no one resigned. They were just trying to work their way through a very difficult position.

The case gives some useful guidance on what you as a director need to do to avoid personal liability. The directors weren’t flying blind. No one ran away. A proper comparison was made of the effect on creditors of closing down and continuing the business. The figures justified their restructuring plan and decision to carry on accepting deposits and paying them into the companies’ normal bank accounts. The decisions were made on the basis of prudent management, accurate financial information, and legal and professional advice. A professional analysis of the situation and comprehensive reporting are vital. Evidence is key – minute all decisions, retain all the financial documents. Get independent professional advice from the right insolvency specialist.

Here are some questions for you to ask yourself:

1. Is the company insolvent or at risk of insolvency?
2. Should you continue to accept customer deposits?
3. What do you tell major creditors, if anything?
4. What steps should you take to protect your personal position?
5. Can you resign if you don’t like what is going on?
6. Do you have all the evidence you need to justify your decisions?
7. Are you taking the right professional advice?

Who pays business rates after a liquidator has disclaimed a lease?

What was thought to be the situation has recently been confirmed in the High Court, when a landlord was told to pay up £0.6m to Birmingham Council for business rates accruing after a tenant went into liquidation and disclaimed the lease – click here to read the judgement.

Thus any uncertainty there was that payment of business rates post disclaimer was the landlord’s problem has now evaporated.

This is a mixture of good and bad news…

Good for local authorities …

Bad for landlords who now know that unless they have the benefit of a strong covenant or strong Authorised Guarantee Agreement could end up with a big rates bill at a time when a property is earning no income …

Good for prospective tenants of empty properties as they could be in a better negotiating position when it comes to rent free periods or other ‘perks’…

Good for tenants of tertiary properties who could go to the wall unless they can renegotiate leases and rent payment dates with the landlord.

In fact it’s good news for everyone but landlords and people who’ve signed an authorised guarantee agreement!

If you’re a tenant who has massive problems because of their rent bill, and you’d like some help renegotiating it, call me on 01902 672323.

What we can all learn from the mountains about fear …

Hi, this month I’m going to talk to you about something we all experience from time to time – and that’s fear.

We all feel fear from time to time, and right now, although there is more of a feelgood factor around, I am seeing people who are fearful of making key decisions whether they be ‘positive’ – growing their business or exiting – or less so, such as seeking a formal insolvency solution.  Fear can paralyse.  It can cause people to settle for a lesser outcome than they’re capable of.  Fear holds us all back, it’s just a question of how much we allow it and where.

I’m going to tell you a few personal stories about when I was afraid, indeed in fear of my life in the mountains, drawing on the circumstances, my thoughts, my and others’ actions – you see the principles that apply in the mountains also apply in business!

Firstly, let’s set the scene … I’m a member of a mountaineering club, a small team of us within it are ‘ticking off’ the highest mountains across Europe… and doing so has got us into a few scrapes.  Here are just three of them…

Let me take you back to my first European trip, all those years ago…

Here’s me part way up Gran Paradiso, Italy’s highest mountain.

Taking a break, high above the clouds, I was feeling good – I’d already put a lot of effort in, I was enjoying myself.  Sure, I wasn’t exactly in my comfort zone and had no idea what the next few hours would bring, but all was good, I was feeling strong and moderately confident.

Over the next few hours as we climbed higher, more of my colleagues fell by the wayside – the combination of intense heat, effort and reducing oxygen levels was taking its toll.  20 steps before stopping gasping for breath and waiting for the pain in my legs to subside became 15, then 10, then 5.  The slow plod up the snowfield then became more technically challenging, the penalty for a stumble more serious – if I hadn’t been roped up to an experienced climber who’d been along a similar, even though not the same route, before, I wouldn’t have got this far, I couldn’t have gone on.  But I was, and could.

Eventually we got to the top.  Euphoria!  Staying there for half an hour we drank in the views.

How many countries, how many mountains could we see?  Then it dawned on us, the snow and ice was melting in the afternoon sun… descending is always far more difficult and dangerous, and can be slower, than ascending…  even more so as the snow and ice softened.   It seems as suddenly things had got far more serious.  Our plan needed to be bold… our actions decisive… we had to implicitly trust each other and our equipment.

This was the plan…  I’d belay the climber down the ridge until where he could safely belay me, then  we’d swop; if there was no safe belay stance, we’d both walk carefully down the ridge, as close to the top edge as we could so that if one of us fell down the steep snow slope (this seemed more likely), the other would instantly throw himself over the cliff (3,000 foot drop) the other side to counterbalance the fall.  A fall or slip not stopped by the other climber would mean certain death for both of us.

God I was scared… I’d been afraid on the way up but this was altogether another level … and I was uncomfortable having to place my trust in one person for so much…I’d not had the opportunity to train with him before, there’d been no dry run.

4 hours later we arrived down safely at the hut, exhilarated, a real thank God moment .

Then there was Liechstenstein…Grauspitz

In the restaurant at the top of the cable car, we took ten minutes out in for a coke, today was going to be a long day…  today’s objective was a simple climb up a mere 2,500 metre peak before crossing the ridge to the hut.  You see we were following a route set out in the trusted Cicerone guidebook.

I guess we should have listened to the restaurant owner, he’d been to the top 200 or so times.  But we were taking a different route – one he said didn’t exist.  Surely, we can trust the guidebook?  ‘Which hut?’ he asked?  ‘In one day? – that’s impossible’.  Maybe we should have listened.

We started on our way…the scenery was stunning, it was Spring in the valleys, the flowers were incredible, the lakes a magical colour, the views across to the high mountains stupendous.   So this is where the Swiss army do their mortar practice?  They weren’t firing today so we carefully picked our way up the firing range, avoiding the UXBs stuck in the mud, posing for photos with the remnants of those that had gone off.

A check on the GPS, yes, this is the climb, time to rope up…there were no telltale signs of climbers having been here before, but checking the guidebook, this looked like the route.  Anyway we’d be ok, we’d been training for months, we had done this before.

50, 100, 150 metres up the climb … things were getting progressively more difficult.  And there was no way of retreating – there were no safe anchor points off which we could abseil.  We had just one option, to keep climbing…

This is a photo of me at one of the advanced belay stances.  The look on my face says it all.  A few minutes before this was taken a rock the size of a fridge had come down, dislodged by my climbing partner, missing my head by inches.  I’d never seen it, my colleagues yards from me had.  There had been no warning shout, it had happened so quickly.  This was serious: I had just one piece of gear attaching me to the rock – the norm is 3 – and it was poor, it wouldn’t hold  a fall; the rope to my partner then ran out, he hadn’t moved for several minutes, he’d dislodged a ruck of rocks, it was obvious he was stuck; and on the way to where he was now stuck he’d been complaining he couldn’t get any gear in. There was a good chance he’d fall from 30 metres + above and straight past me – unless I could somehow jump on him as he went past.  We’d probably both fall straight to the bottom – 400 ft or so.  Look at the concentration on my face! – I was listening what was happening above, feeling, reading the rope, hoping to make the right decision in a split second should my partner fall – what was happening on the climb next to me was ignored, we had our problems, they had theirs, we couldn’t help them right now, 100% focus on the here and now.

A shout came down ‘ I need you to leave your stance, start climbing with me, I’m ten metres from a ledge, I might be able to make it’.  Leaving such an uncomfortable, unsafe place wasn’t too hard a decision, yet it still meant making a gigantic leap of faith… sure it might not work, but what was the alternative?  And it meant climbing at a grade above my normal lead climber capabilities, up a collapsing route, essentially with us both operating at the very limit of what we can do for a short while.

A few hours later, exhausted we go to the top of ‘the climb’.  We’d made it… or so we thought.  A plod up a rubble field led us to a col ….

The summit was a mere hour’s round trip to the left, the hut a very long way down, you can just see it left of the mountain.  As it was early evening we took the difficult decision of abandoning the summit attempt despite traveling all that way just to bag it!  Our plan of crossing the ridge was also abandoned – it wasn’t a ridge as the maps had suggested, it was another immense climb – our plan, based on books and maps, was unachievable – foreign maps are so unreliable!

Contour around, pick up the path, it’ll be easy, won’t it?  8 hours later, 2am at night, in the pitch black, exhausted physically and mentally, we collapsed into the hut – having improvised on our crossing of 2 precipitous snowfields (we’d abandoned our snow and ice gear in the car as we’d been told there was no snow up there); done several via ferrata in the dark, above huge drops …etc.  We’d been the first to cross from the col this year. Although hardy mountaineers this relatively small one had pushed us to our limit, and beyond, time and time again.   We’d given it our best shot, but we’d failed… but we were alive, no one had died – our pride was dented.

Then there was Germany…Glossglockner

Getting up any 4,000 metre peak is hard work, they don’t give in easily.  A long walk up the valley, across the glacier, up a scramble led us to the hut at around 3,500 metres.  I was really struggling – the speedy climb to such a height meant I had ‘mild’ altitude sickness. I couldn’t eat, I had a raging headache, I ached all over, I was shivering uncontrollably, my breathing was shallow and very rapid.  I doubted whether I’d be able to get up in the morning, let alone have a crack at the mountain.

After a night of no sleep, things hadn’t really improved, yet forcing some breakfast down, and with some encouragement from my fellow climbers, I decided to give it a go as I’d come that far.  The problem was Andy, our most experienced guy, suggested that I should lead the team!  I hadn’t lead climbed a 4,000 metre peak before.  And I was feeling terrible. My pride meant I simply had to give it a go – the nickname ‘bunk-bed’ given to one of my climbing friends who had had similar altitude issues but stopped in the hut on a previous trip had stuck with him!

Slowly I started off, zig-zagging up a snow bank that steepened until eventually the snow gave a way to a scramble, time to ditch the snow gear.   I still felt terrible.  Huge drop to the left – memo to self – be aware of it but don’t let it detract from my focus – always keep three limbs on the rock; plan half a dozen moves ahead; find and stick to a rhythm; test each move before committing to one that might be fatal; look out for and use what protection you can when it’s there, but if there’s none, trust yourself; small moves, no big ones; stop and re-appraise strategy when you can; expect a crux – don’t worry about it until you get there, and then just deal with it; control the emotions; trust in your team but keep watching them to monitor their performance; expect someone, in this case the foreign guides, who somehow think you’re inhabiting their space to try to walk all over you.

This is a photo of the ridge, that I led us up to, across and back down…with pride, with increasing confidence and adrenalin overcoming my physical difficulties and mental uncertainty.

So what comparisons can we draw to being in business, especially one that is struggling?

  • Being in a comfortable place is only temporary.  Make the most of it because it’s not the norm – the norm is being out of the comfort zone, continually stretching yourself.  
  • It’s ok to aim high and miss, because even then you’re still achieving far more than almost everyone else!
  • If pushed, you’d be surprised what a normal person can achieve…especially if they’re supported, even tacitly, by an expert who’s got real, practical, experience along a similar route. 
  • It’s important to have the right equipment / tools around you.  It’s vital you have the right team around you.  You may be able to improvise on the equipment/tools, but don’t ever consider compromising on the team.
  • After someone has got used to operating outside of their comfort zone, decisions and actions that were once considered to be impossible become easier.   And that breeds self-confidence.
  • Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it, however hard it becomes.
  • Desperation is not always a bad thing, even if it did feel like the worst thing in the world at the time. 
  • Pride can either get in the way of achieving something major or drive you on to do it – it’s neither entirely a good nor bad thing, but it’s important to know how it’s effecting your decisions and assess whether you should allow it to, or not.
  • There must be an end game and a plan, but neither should be set in stone – it’s a good idea to adapt both of them as you go along to reflect changing circumstances.
  • You can never stop working on your skills – it’s not enough to just rely on the experts.  Everything that’s worthwhile achieving involves a good degree of self-help. 
  • What’s going on inside a person’s head is key – your own self belief and a willingness to take calculated risks are vital when the chips are down.  To others, even you at an earlier moment in time, this may seem reckless, but it’s not.  Having overcome any sort of challenge in your life, even in completely unconnected areas, can be a help to taking tough decisions now.  
  • Sometimes to survive it’s essential to focus on one thing at a time, ignoring everything else that is going on around you.  The ability to blank out things you cannot influence and are irrelevant right at that moment in time is important.   
  • 99.9% of the time there’s no need for you to take big steps – there are only small steps strung together to make one big step.  Looking no further than the current step can be a good thing.
  • Things take longer than you’d anticipate.  Everything… always.  
  • It’s ok to be scared, even out of your wits, and to lack confidence.  But it’s vital to harness your fear, to control your emotions, to maintain your cool, to dampen down any uncertainty even if things are going against you – doing so will sharpen your awareness, up your game if only to enable you to live for another day.  In business what’s the worst that can happen? – after all, you can rebuild!

As an insolvency practitioner, I have to deal with stressful situations similar to those I’ve encountered in the mountains, every day.  I believe that these experiences help give me the right balance, help me best support the clients I work with.  Sure, not everyone wants to go on such a journey, but that’s ok, because plenty do, and for them the world is their oyster.

Paul Brindley
Midlands Business Recovery

Just set up a new business? Read this if you want it to be a success!

As an insolvency practitioner, I have met met hundreds of new business owners…wouldn’t it be great if you could learn what I’ve learnt from all those meetings?

Well you can!  Here’s an article just for you…

So you want to set up in business, do you?

Or you’ve recently started trading but not doing as well as you hoped?

Would you like to know how to avoid going under? How to give it the best chance of being a success?

You see, there’s a big problem with small businesses.  And that is when most people go into business, they only look at the positives such as what they’ll do when things really take off.  Things like what new car they’ll buy, how they’ll spend their increased free time, how they’ll manage all that profitable work? ….
… They build the business on two things:

(i) what they think they know; and

(ii) what they hope.

They don’t go out of their way to find out what they don’t know or to plan for things not going quite to plan.

Yet it’s often what they don’t know or haven’t thought about that will eventually kill the business.  And with it, destroy their hopes and dreams, and often their own and their family’s finances.

The bad news is that’s how it turns out for the 4 out of 10 new start-ups – yes, 40% of new businesses fail within the first 2 years!

That’s almost as many businesses fail as are still alive within just 2 years.  But it doesn’t end there – of the survivors, most then go on to fail within the next 3 years.  Only one in ten are still around by year 5.

The point is you will fail if you follow the course most new business owners do. Yet with so many not making it, there’s an abundance of experiences out there that you can learn from. And it’s free to do so!  Here they are…

The business was started for the wrong reason

Some businesses are set up and then run more like a hobby than a business.  I call these ‘lifestyle businesses’ – they tend to merely exist, either doing poorly or at least not doing spectacularly, until something happens later to cause the wheels to come off…

It scares me that right now many small businesses being set up out of necessity – because there are no jobs around – rather than by someone who has identified a profitable opportunity.

Why have you set up?

I can do it all myself!

In his book, the E-myth, Michael Gerber spoke of the 3 skill-sets needed by business owners today – entrepreneurial, managerial and technical.  No one I know has all three, in the right degrees.  Businesses that don’t have and won’t buy in all three skill-sets lack the cutting edge to succeed in today’s harsh business environment.  Seeking help from outside the business to plug skills gaps is a show of real strength, not of weakness…

Read the book, plug the gaps!

Not enough money

It always costs more to set up a business than you expected and then survive the inevitable troughs later on.  At this time when the banks are selective as to whom they lend to and seem to fail to support customers when they most need them, it’s not a good idea to rely on credit lines over which you don’t have full control.

Have you taken a good amount of time to assess how much money you will need, where you can get it from and how you’d cope with what might happen when business dips?
Poor financial skills

It is vital that you understand how the business works financially.  If you don’t, it won’t be long before you won’t have a business because you don’t properly understand the machine that brings in the cash it needs works.  Also, if you’ve got weak financial skills, you probably don’t have a strong profit motive.  Sure, you love what you do, but you’ll return to stereotype ‘manager’ or technician’ – see above – roles when things get tough, and when you do, you’ll dig the business into an even bigger hole rather than solve its problems.

Do you understand exactly how how the business ticks financially?  Do you understand the figures?  Think about going to college to learn management and accounting if you don’t.  Don’t try to abdicate responsibility for your business’s finances to an accountant – sure it’s ok to hand the processing to him, but not responsibility.
The location, the product or service is all wrong

Quite simply, the business opportunity was not fully explored, optimism blinded reality… there are many businesses in our High Streets which have got the location, product or service wrong.  I stand there and think ‘just what is the owner thinking?  It just doesn’t stand a chance!’

Have you allowed your heart to overrule your head?
No planning

Have you heard the saying ‘to fail to plan is to plan to fail’.   Have you planned for what is going to happen?  And what might happen? – you see the unexpected does happen, increasingly so today!

A lot of the things that cause businesses to fail can be anticipated, plans can be formulated to avoid failure.

Have you spent enough time thinking about what is going to happen and how you’d deal with what might happen?

Poor trading levels

Where a business suffers poor trading levels, often their owners cut costs to manage their cash flows – they do this because it’s often the easiest decision and produces short term cash benefits.  However, if this is all you do, you’re merely storing up much more serious problems into the medium term.  It’s simply not possible to cut yourself to greatness!…

If things don’t work out in terms of sales levels, what’s your plan? How certain are your planned sales figures?
Poor marketing

Many businesses wait for sales to find them, because ‘that’s what you’ve always done’.  If you have worked for someone and have now gone to work for yourself, this could be a big problem for you.  I often can’t ‘find’ any presence anywhere of such businesses – there is no website, no sales force – and if I can’t find you, how can you expect would-be customers to find you?

What’s your marketing plan?  Have you written it down? Do you follow it up?
Failing to set and follow a clear strategy for success

Without a formal plan, businesses develop haphazardly.  And one day you’ll scratch your head and wonder just how the business got to where it is now – it will then be slowly strangled, by ‘unfair’ relationships with a major customer, by your banking constraints, or something other you could have anticipated, …

What’s your strategy?  have you written it down?  Do you act on it?
Business model with high fixed costs

An inflexible business model with high fixed costs may work in boom times, but it will cause significant problems in the inevitable times of bust.

Tell me all about your fixed costs…
Finally, knowledge without action is pointless, it won’t change the outcome, so now go and do something about it!
Paul Brindley FCA, Licensed insolvency practitioner
Midlands Business Recovery

A message for all you business consultants out there who are struggling for an answer to a client’s problems…

No one knows all the answers, that’s why my Business Resuscitation work is so very vital…

Let me ask you a question –
Do you have any clients who could benefit from some innovative support from a licensed insolvency practitioner?  

Please bear with me, I am not talking about business closure here, this is about achieving for your clients some really great results that you will not be able to achieve on your own…  

You see a long time ago I formed the view that insolvency practitioners should be doing far more than just closing businesses down, and because whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve, I invested heavily in what I call my Business Resuscitation Programme™.  And believe me, this service is unique, I’ve left them all my competitors in my wake.

My Business Resuscitation work puts businesses in touch with the people and organisations that provide exactly what they need but cannot easily get elsewhere, whether it be cash, skills, a business to buy or merge with, a buyer of their business, a joint venture partner … the list goes on, it’s that flexible.

Built initially to save struggling businesses, it’s now being used by businesses at all stages of the cycle.
You see it provides solutions your clients never thought possible.  So if you ever find yourself scratching your head unable to find the optimum solution for a client, just give me a call – I’d be glad to explain how it works.  Just remember one thing, now with my Business Resuscitation Programme neither you nor your clients will ever have to settle for second best.  And if you don’t need me just yet, please retain this mailer because at some time you will.

Paul Brindley FCA      Tel: 01902 67232301902 672323


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