The Australian Competition and Consumers Commission (ACCC) has taken Origin Electricity to court for the fifth time. The retailer was slammed with penalties of $2 million for unlawful door-to-door sales practices. Its marketing company, SalesForce Australia Pty Ltd, was ordered to pay $325,000 in restitution and fines.

The Federal Court found Origin and SalesForce used unconscionable conduct, harassment or coercion, while also making false or misleading statements against vulnerable people. The charges related to breaches of unsolicited consumer agreement provisions in Australian Consumer Law. These specifically related to pressure sales techniques used on 10 residents in NSW, Queensland, Victoria, and South Australia.

Justice Katmann said in her judgenment, “In each case the sales representative practised deceptions on the consumers in order to secure their custom. They preyed on the vulnerable and the ill-informed.

“The conduct is serious, not only because of the deliberate deceptions and the exploitation of vulnerable consumers, but also because of the location and context in which the conduct occurred: at private homes to which the respondents were not invited.”

Consumer Action Law Centre chief executive Gerard Brody and ACCC chairman Rod Sims both said the penalties sent a clear message to retailers that this sort of pressure-selling will not be tolerated in Australia.

“Salespeople are only paid if they get a sale,” said Mr Brody. “That means it’s very difficult for businesses to comply with the law. These salespeople are away from scrutiny and commonly engage in misleading claims about the nature of the product, or take advantage of particularly vulnerable people.”

Through their sales representatives Origin and SalesForce made false and misleading representations including:

  • Pretending there was a mistake on a customer’s electricity bill issued by their current supplier.
  • Telling a consumer they had to change providers to Origin to comply with government changes.
  • Telling a customer they would not be charged an exit fee from their current provider if they changed to Origin.
  • Falsely telling the customer that the sales representative was part of a government-commissioned study investigating complaints against energy prices.
  • Misleading the customer into believing they were signing an expression of interest and that their current electricity retailer would remain unchanged.

The court found Origin and Salesforce had breached several unsolicited consumer agreement provisions of the ACL. They did this through:

  • Not disclosing that the purpose of their visit was to seek the consumer’s consent to enter into a contract with Origin.
  • Refusing to leave the premises on the request of the householder – including one instance where the customer had a ‘do not knock’ sticker clearly displayed.
  • Calling on residents outside of regulated hours.
  • Neglecting to inform and provide documentation to the customers about the cool-off period, in which they had to the right to terminate the agreement.

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