The Federal Court has ordered one of Australia’s largest debt collection firms, ACM Group Ltd, to pay $750,000 in penalties for ACM’s misleading, harassing, coercive and unconscionable pursuit of unpaid debts from two vulnerable consumers.
Between 2011 and 2015, ACM pursued two consumers, one who was resident in a care facility and the other a single parent with limited income, for unpaid mobile services debt which ACM purchased from Telstra.
“ACM’s continued harassment and intimidation of a care facility resident who had difficulty speaking after suffering multiple strokes is one of the worst cases of unconscionable conduct we have seen in the debt collection sector,” ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court said.
“ACM’s conduct towards another consumer who was in difficult financial circumstances, which included giving false information and making empty threats of court action, was also particularly egregious.”
“This penalty sends a signal to all business in the debt collection sector that their standards of behaviour must comply with the Australian Consumer Law when they are seeking to recover debts.”
“Unconscionable conduct such as harassment, intimidation and coercion of consumers is unacceptable to not only the ACCC and the Court, but the wider community,” Ms Court said.
The ACCC had sought the maximum penalty of $1.1 million for ACM’s conduct towards the first consumer, and around $550,000 for its conduct towards the second consumer, due to the seriousness of ACM’s behaviour.
The Court has made a number of other orders, including that ACM pay the ACCC’s legal costs.
The ACCC first took action against ACM group in June 2016. The Federal Court found ACM had breached the Australian Consumer Law in July 2018.
In 2012, in a case brought by ASIC, the Federal Court found that ACM Group had harassed and coerced consumers and engaged in ‘widespread’ and ‘systemic’ misleading and deceptive conduct when seeking to recover money.
In July 2014, the ACCC and ASIC jointly released updated guidelines for debt collection firms regarding their contact with consumers and compliance with the law. The guidelines encourage debt collectors to be flexible, fair and realistic and to recognise debtors who are vulnerable. The industry association for debt buyers, the Australian Collectors & Debt Buyers Association, required its members to accept these guidelines in March 2016.
In 2015, the ACCC released a report into the Australian debt collection industry.
Both the ACCC and ASIC are responsible for consumer protection in the debt collection industry. The two agencies work closely and in this case ASIC delegated its powers to the ACCC to pursue this action.