ACCC sets 2013 consumer protection priorities

ACCC Chairman Rod Sims outlined the ACCC priorities for 2013 in a speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia on 21 February .

In the speech Mr Sims emphasised strong enforcement and setting clear commercial boundaries as not only key priorities but central to the ACCC’s purpose. Some of the priorities from the speech are set out below.

Online consumer issues

“We will continue to give priority to online competition and consumer issues including conduct which may impede emerging competition between online traders or limit the ability of small businesses to effectively compete online.

For example, this year the work we have already commenced in looking closely at online group buying websites will come to a head. Despite recent inroads from the work of ACL regulators, during the past couple of years there has been a significant increase in complaints about these websites.

Another new area of complaint that the ACCC is interested in is fake testimonials and reviews in online retailing, given the increasing number of consumers shopping online. Fake testimonials can mislead consumers and give an unfair advantage to
unscrupulous traders.”

Telecommunications and Energy

The telecommunications and energy sectors will continue to be closely watched by the ACCC .

“Actions against Apple Pty Limited last year and the continuing proceedings with TPG Internet Pty Ltd are the type of interventions that can be expected from the ACCC.”

“…we continue to drive energy retailers to fix what has been, in our view, reprehensible treatment of consumers by many involved in door to door sales. Actions against two traders last year will be followed by more this year, with investigations continuing into a number of traders. The ACCC has been warning for some time that industry needed to fix this problem, yet the complaints have continued.

Last year the ACCC launched its ‘Knock! Knock! Who’s There?’ consumer awareness campaign. The focus was to stop unfair door to door sales practices and the put the word out to consumers about their rights and ability to refuse door to door sales.  The ACCC has handed out close to 70,000 ‘Do Not Knock’ stickers, 39,000 door hangers and 16,000 consumers guides.”

Consumer Guarantees

“Ensuring we act where we believe consumers may be misled is another way we can drive that awareness and adjust business behaviour.”

Consumer protection issues impacting on Indigenous communities

“Identifying and addressing consumer protection issues impacting on Indigenous communities continues to be a priority for the ACCC, and other ACL regulators who have worked closely with them.

For the ACCC’s part, it continues to take enforcement action whether it be related to selling phone plans in out of coverage areas or misrepresentations about art.

Important in this process is continuing to develop relationships with Indigenous communities and consumers with a view to empowering them in their dealings with business and in providing confidence for matters to be reported and actioned. We have stepped up our activity on this front with increased outreach and projects with specific communities.”

Credence claims

“New to our priorities is an interest in credence claims, particularly those in the food industry with the potential to have a significant effect on consumers and the competitive process. Consumers are increasingly placing weight on premium claims made by producers that a consumer cannot test or validate. They are in the hands of the producer, leading to a particular vulnerability.”

Unfair contract terms

The ACCC will be having a closer look at unfair contract terms.

“Progress in this area has already been made. They have reviewed consumer contracts in a number of sectors including:

• telecommunications
• airlines
• hire cars, and
• online trading.

A number of businesses have already made amendments to their standard contracts after the ACCC approached them about potentially unfair terms. 

The ACCC will be issuing a report on the outcomes of those reviews shortly. It will be made very clear that more direct action can be expected from those that continue to use clauses of concern. 

The first allegations of UCT will be heard in court shortly in the proceedings against the current operators of the Advanced Medical Institute Pty Ltd business.”

The ACCC will continue to monitor carbon price claims in 2013.

For the full speech by Chairman Rod Sims

The ACCC has also released its new ACCC’s compliance and enforcement policy, which gives guidelines on whether to pursue certain matters as well as outlining compliance and enforcement priorities for the year.