The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has commenced legal proceedings against a series of 'business registers' and 'consultancies' which the ACCC alleges have made misleading and unsolicited claims against small businesses.
The ACCC action follows extensive investigations, assisted by a number of State and Territory consumer affairs bureaux and fair trading agencies, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Tax Office and the Insurance and Superannuation Commission.
The ACCC has alleged in its statement of claim that the 'registers' and 'consultancies' have made false, misleading and unsolicited claims against a number of small businesses across Australia by false representations in letters. These representations include:
- the 'registers' or 'consultancies' are either a government agency, or in some way associated with a government;
- that the businesses need to use the services in order to meet government regulatory requirements;
- that small businesses which do not use the 'registers'/'consultancies' services will not be able to obtain government contracts; and/or
- that businesses have already agreed to use the service, or have used it in the past. This includes sending invoices for 'renewals' when the business had not previously used the service.
The ACCC has filed two actions: the first against Stephen Gregory Wyer, and the second against Optell Pty Ltd, Geoffrey Allan Beckett and Clinton Wade Andela. The schemes which are the specific focus of the proceedings are: Office of Superannuation Assistance (OSA), Superannuation Assistance Registry (SAR), Australian Business and Companies Register (ABCR), Australian Business and Companies Guide (ABCG) and The Certified Quality Assured Companies of Australia (CQA).
[Charts lodged with court documents explaining the alleged links between the individuals and letterheads for the companies are attached].
The schemes purport to offer two types of services:
- First, entry into a register which is sent to government and business purchasing departments. The ACCC alleges that no registers exists for these schemes nor have any arrangements been made with government purchasing departments for the use of these registers. Businesses who have received quality assurance certification have most likely already, as part of their certification, obtained free entry on the only official register, the Joint Accreditation system of Australia and New Zealand (JAS-ANZ).
- Secondly, the schemes offer a brokerage-like service. In the case of CQA this is to provide referrals for Quality Assurance Consultants. In the case of OSA and SAR, it is claimed the schemes provide referrals for superannuation consultants.
An urgent hearing for interlocutory orders seeking to prevent the respondents from profiting from the schemes and to safeguard monies already received will be held at 9am on Thursday 15 August in the Federal Court, Canberra.
The ACCC is seeking urgent injunctions to prevent the conduct from continuing including orders for the cessation of advertising of telephone numbers and post office boxes promoting the scheme. Other orders sought include the return of cheques received, corrective advertising and letters to clients advising the correct nature of the service provided, including the offer of a refund.
The ACCC has limited powers to obtain financial redress for injured consumers. However it is already holding more than $2,500 in cheques made in payment for these schemes, gained under its statutory information gathering powers.
During the ACCC's investigations, a number of schemes were uncovered. The ACCC warns consumers that these may also have no association with any government and if so, businesses may not be required to make any payments to them. The schemes include The Victorian Contractors Register, the South Australian Contractors Register, The Consumers Business Register, The Register of Quality Assured Companies of Australia and New Zealand, the Victorian Contractors Register and Australian Business Reports. Schemes such as these appear in many guises. If invoices or letters are received by consumers for entry on any register or any service which consumers are not certain they require they should check with the agency concerned. If consumers are still unsure they should contact their legal adviser, accountant or State/Territory consumer affairs bureau or fair trading agency.