A debt management firm which offers mortgage refinancing has paid $37,800 in penalties for making potentially misleading statements in its advertising, including providing approval for lending within 15 seconds.
Fox Symes and Associates Pty Ltd (Fox Symes) offers help with debt consolidation and mortgage refinancing. As well as debt management, Fox Symes also has a home loan arm and a car loan arm.
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) took action against Fox Symes after it made a number of potentially misleading representations in banner advertisements, Google ads and on its website. These representations included ‘Free Debt Assistance’,‘Reduce Debt in Minutes’ and ‘15sec Approval’.
ASIC was concerned that such statements misrepresented the cost and speed of Fox Symes’ debt management services. It has now issued the company with three infringement notices.
ASIC Deputy Chair Peter Kell said, "Debt management firms are often engaging with particularly vulnerable consumers who are seeking assistance with their debts. They should be careful not to misrepresent their services using high impact terms like ‘free’, ‘minutes’ and ‘seconds’ suggesting that debt assistance will be quick and at no cost."
‘Free Debt Assistance’ appeared in a banner advertisement and on the Fox Symes website. Fox Symes did not disclose to consumers that there was a limit to the ‘free debt assistance’ and that charges apply for most of Fox Symes’ services. The ‘free’ component referred to the initial first phone consultation.
‘Reduce debt in minutes’ appeared in banner advertisements. As Fox Symes’ services generally require engagement with third parties, a reduction in debt cannot feasibly be achieved in minutes, seconds or any other similar short period of time.
‘15sec approval’ appeared in Google paid Adword results. Where Fox Symes provides credit services, the responsible lending requirements under the National Consumer Credit Protection Act 2009 (Cth) apply. Approval could not be provided within such short timeframes.
Fox Symes voluntarily amended its advertising once ASIC raised its initial concerns.
The payment of an infringement notice is not an admission of a contravention. ASIC can issue an infringement notice where it has reasonable grounds to believe a person has contravened certain consumer protection laws.