The Federal Court has ordered Acquire Learning and Careers Pty Ltd (Acquire) to pay penalties of $4.5 million for engaging in unconscionable conduct, making false or misleading representations and breaching the unsolicited consumer agreements provisions in the Australian Consumer Law (ACL).
Acquire telemarketers were paid based on the number of consumers referred and enrolled in online VET FEE-HELP assisted courses. Acquire admitted in joint submissions that it had made false or misleading representations and that its sales tactics towards eight identified consumers were unconscionable. Acquire also admitted that this conduct was clearly unfair or unreasonable, and inconsistent with the prevailing business and social values that underpin acceptable standards which apply to dealings with consumers.
“Acquire took advantage of vulnerable consumers by using unfair sales tactics to pressure consumers to enrol in a vocational training course and apply for VET FEE-HELP assistance,” ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court said.
The ACCC relied upon recordings of calls by telemarketers to eight consumers to support its allegation of unconscionable conduct.
“These consumers were vulnerable, at a disadvantage, and pressured into unsuitable online courses given their individual backgrounds and educational capabilities.”
“The penalty of $4.5 million imposed by the Court is the ACCC’s second largest consumer protection penalty. Businesses are warned that using unfair sales tactics and making misleading representations to pressure vulnerable consumers is unacceptable,” Ms Court said.
Justice Murphy described Acquire’s conduct where it “rorted the VET FEE-HELP scheme” as having a business model that was “based on maximising the number of enrolments it was able to achieve for its Clients and thereby maximise the fees payable to it. Acquire’s conduct in that regard was deliberate and overt”.
“The deliberateness of the contravening conduct, its nature in targeting vulnerable people, the losses suffered by the Commonwealth, and Acquire’s status as a market leader, indicates a strong requirement for general and specific deterrence,” Justice Murphy said.
“Its activities resembled those of an unscrupulous fly by night operation rather than those of a prominent and market leading provider of student recruitment services, as it describes itself,” Justice Murphy said.
The Court also made orders restraining Acquire from making representations about the uses or benefits of enrolling in a course without having a reasonable basis for doing so, that Acquire Learning undertake six monthly reviews of its existing compliance programme for a period of three years to ensure its effectiveness, and that Acquire pay $100,000 towards the ACCC’s costs.
Acquire cooperated with the ACCC’s action, including by making admissions and agreeing joint submissions on penalty which were filed with the court. In April 2017, Acquire Learning was placed into voluntary administration.
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