The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has commenced proceedings in the Federal Court against debt collection firm ACM Group Ltd (ACM). ACM purchases debts from companies, including telecommunications companies, utility companies and banks, and then attempts to recover all or part of the debt.
The ACCC alleges ACM engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct, harassment and coercion, and unconscionable conduct in dealings with two consumers in contravention of the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) and/or the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001 (Cth)(the ASIC Act).
The alleged conduct occurred between 2011–2015 in relation to one consumer, a resident in a care facility, and in September 2014 in relation to the other consumer, a single parent with a limited income. In each case, the debt being pursued had been sold to ACM by Telstra.
“Conduct affecting vulnerable consumers is an enforcement priority for the ACCC,” ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said.
“The ACCC has brought these proceedings because the alleged conduct by ACM, in seeking to recover debts ACM had purchased from Telstra, was in our view contrary to accepted community values and standards of fairness in dealing with consumers, especially those who are vulnerable.”
“This action is part of our joint efforts with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission to improve debt collection practices,” Mr Sims said.
“The ACCC has worked with debt collectors and businesses who assign debts, to ensure that collection activity complies with best practice and the law. We are now taking enforcement action to reinforce these efforts.”
The ACCC alleges that ACM engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct by representing to:
- both consumers that ACM was about to commence legal proceedings against them when this was not the case; and
- the second consumer that ACM was preparing to issue them with a summons when ACM was not planning to do so, and that failing to make an immediate payment to ACM would affect their ability to obtain credit for five to seven years when ACM did not have reasonable grounds to make that statement.
It is also alleged that ACM:
- engaged in undue harassment by repeatedly contacting the first consumer by phone and letter when ACM was aware that he had difficulty communicating, was highly vulnerable and had no capacity to repay the debt; and
- engaged in coercion by representing to the second consumer that ACM was going to take legal action or issue a summons and that failing to make an immediate payment to ACM would affect their ability to obtain credit for five to seven years.
The ACCC also alleged that ACM’s conduct in dealing with each of these consumers was, in all circumstances, unconscionable.
The ACCC is seeking pecuniary penalties, declarations, injunctions, orders for an ACL compliance program, publication orders and costs.
ACM is the largest privately owned debt acquisition firm in Australia.
In 2012, in a case brought by ASIC, the Federal Court found that ACM had harassed and coerced consumers and engaged in ‘widespread’ and ‘systemic’ misleading and deceptive conduct when seeking to recover money. The ACCC’s current action relates to two instances of conduct which it considers particularly concerning.
In addition to alleged contraventions of the ACL, the ACCC alleges, in the alternative, that ACM’s conduct contravened the ASIC Act. This relies on a delegation of power from ASIC to the ACCC.
For more information about ASIC’s 2012 court action against ACM, please see the following ASIC media release – Federal Court finds debt collection group misled and harassed debtors(link is external).
Both the ACCC and ASIC are responsible for consumer protection in the debt collection industry, with ASIC’s role relating to financial services and the ACCC having broader responsibilities. The two agencies work closely to determine which is agency is the appropriate one to pursue particular matters.
In July 2014, the ACCC and ASIC released updated guidelines for debt collection firms regarding their contact with consumers and compliance with the law. In December 2014, the ACCC released ‘Dealing with debt collectors: Your rights and responsibilities‘, a guide that helps consumers in trouble with debt understand their options and how to deal with debt collectors and creditors.
In May 2015, the ACCC released a report based on research into the Australian debt collection industry which concluded that while the industry had seen an increase in standards in recent years, a number of problematic practices remain. The report noted, among other findings, that non-compliant debt collection activity could be particularly harmful to vulnerable or disadvantaged consumers.
These documents are available through the ACCC website.