Choice targets shonky ‘unfair but not illegal’ business practices in new consumer survey

May 25, 2021
When should consumer law step in? Consumer group Choice is asking Australians for their thoughts in a new survey. Source: Getty

There’s a grey area between when a business acts unfairly and when a business actually breaks the law. Yet, if you’re on the receiving end of a shonky business practice it can seem quite clear that it’s not right.

Currently, there’s no law to stop a business from acting unfairly, however, consumer group Choice has launched a new survey aimed at gauging whether Australian shoppers think unfair practices should be made illegal.

The consumer group has launched several investigations into businesses in recent months, finding many are operating on business models it says shouldn’t be legal.

One such example is an investigation recently in which Choice accused Telstra of using ‘aggressive’ sales techniques, signing up seniors for services and products they neither needed nor wanted. While Telstra was fined for some of the instances, practices such as the ‘aggressive’ sales techniques were called into question, with experts saying the commission-based structure needs to be done away with, the same way it has in the banking industry.

Similarly, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Choice also investigated price hikes by supermarkets and other online businesses. In March 2020, Choice questioned how price gouging on essential items was not against the law. During the crisis, Choice received a number of complaints about the increase of prices on essential items that were running low on stock, in one case finding face masks being sold at 10 to 20 time their normal price.

“It may surprise you to learn that price gouging – jacking up prices for essential goods when supplies are low – is technically not illegal in most cases. At least not in Australia,” Choice investigative journalist, Andy Kollmorgen wrote. “But we’re guessing you’re well aware that the practice is widely considered deeply unethical and downright nasty, especially in times when a potentially deadly virus is infecting the community at an alarming rate.”

These are just two examples of unfair business practices the consumer group says should be illegal and is calling on Australians to complete a new survey to help it investigate exactly how to counter the issue. Amy Pereira, Choice campaigner says it is trying to establish what the Australian community considers to be unfair business practices, and learn about people’s personal experiences of unfair treatment.

“Currently, there’s a big gap in the Australian Consumer Law when it comes to protecting Australians from unfair practices,” she said. “We want to know whether Australians think unfair business practices should be illegal. We know that there are a number of unfair practices that are really harmful to the community, but they don’t fit neatly into the consumer law. This means that Australians aren’t protected from these detrimental practices that can leave people feeling powerless and exhausted.”

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has previously advocated for such a law, with Choice investigating exactly how an unfair practices prohibition would work under Australian law.

“Other countries, like the [United States], the [United Kingdom] and Canada have seen great success following the introduction of an unfair practices prohibition, and we think that it could also work incredibly well in Australia,” Pereira said. “We want Australians to feel secure in the knowledge that businesses will treat them fairly and honestly. People deserve to feel confident that when they purchase a product or a service, they are being treated well.

“We’d love to hear from as many Australians as possible so Choice can advocate for consumer protections that best serve the community’s expectations and experiences.”

To share your feedback on unfair business practices, complete the survey here.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your financial or legal situation, objectives or needs. That means it’s not financial product or legal advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a financial or legal decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get independent, licensed financial services or legal advice.

What do you think? Should there be stricter laws around these business practices?

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