Need to know
- After we paid $19 to join Senior Advantage, the “claim this deal” offers turned out to be nothing more than the online discounts of retailers such as Woolies, Coles and Chemist Warehouse – offers that were already available to everyone, regardless of their age
- Senior Advantage absolves itself of any responsibility for third-party offers – at the same time that it bases its business on such offers
- According to the ACCC, many of the tactics that Senior Advantage uses run counter to the Australian Consumer Law
Should Australian consumers be concerned when a company with a website based in Lithuania starts popping up regularly on social media and promises to save older Australians "up to 70% off at Woolworths, Coles and many other stores" – all for a $19-a-year subscription?
The short answer appears to be yes, as several members of the CHOICE Community have pointed out in recent weeks.
The company in question, Senior Advantage, also offers a budgeting tool, a personalised meal plan, and a digital discount book that promises seniors savings at your "favorite shops" and "great restaurants".
"It's been reported that people who regularly use deals and discounts from Senior Advantage can save over $1,500 each year," the company claims in an advertorial. (The 'company' also shows up on the internet as Seniors Advantage.)
The 'claim this deal' link on the Senior Advantage website went straight to the discount page of Woolies' website – which doesn't require a Senior Advantage membership.
Who's behind Senior Advantage?
The spelling of "favorite" is in US English and prices are shown in US dollars, but it's hard to know who's really behind the business.
Aside from Coles and Woolies, the website also promotes deals from Bunnings, Kmart, Amazon, Aldi, IGA, Liquorland and Chemist Warehouse.
And in an advertorial posted on 1 October, Senior Advantage claimed that "recent studies" show that 78% of Australians have never taken advantage of "amazing discounts", including 70% off at "thousands of stores".
It's a compelling pitch. But there seems to be some funny business going on with Senior Advantage, which is operated by a Lithuania-based company called JSC "Inulti" and describes itself as an "internet innovation and technology company".
Aside from Coles and Woolies, the website also promotes deals from Bunnings, Kmart, Amazon, Aldi, IGA, Liquorland and Chemist Warehouse
In mid-October, for instance, Senior Advantage announced it was offering a 75% discount of $19, down from the usual yearly fee of $99. But the payment page on the website at the time just said $19 for one year, with no mention of a discount from $99.
On the special-offer page set up to entice people to join, announcements naming the latest member to sign up (first name only) pop up every few seconds, giving the impression that hundreds of people are signing up every day.
Then there's the matter of what's actually on offer, which we delve into below.
As with Woolies, the Senior Advantage Coles deals were already available on the Coles website.
Senior Advantage not liable
Senior Advantage also has some troubling terms and conditions, such as the right to "discontinue or modify, or temporarily or permanently terminate, the Senior Advantage's Web Site (or any part thereof) with or without notifying you".
The real kicker in the disclaimer language is that, while Senior Advantage promises to find you deals on offer by third parties, it makes abundantly clear that it assumes no responsibility for the legitimacy of any third-party offering.
"We are not responsible for the quality, accuracy, timeliness, reliability, or any other aspect of any product or service offered or provided by a third party," the document reads.
And if you have a dispute with the business, it will have to be addressed through the Lithuanian legal system.
We are not responsible for the quality, accuracy, timeliness, reliability, or any other aspect of any product or service offered or provided by a third partySenior Advantage terms and conditions
(The is similar to the arbitration clauses in Amazon and Tinder contracts and a practice that CHOICE has criticised. We believe that customers of any business selling products and services to Australians should have access to legal remedies in Australia.)
Mystery man? After joining Senior Advantage, we were presented with a greeting from 'president and CEO' Richard Williams. A reverse image search showed it was a stock photo.
Give me a refund – now
One consumer who briefly joined Senior Advantage and recently got in touch with us was not impressed.
"They indicated on the promo and ad that you could save tons on food products from Woolies and other stores, as well as other 'great savings'," the consumer told CHOICE.
"When I bought the membership, it was not so. I get specials sent to me from stores I buy from for free, and Senior Advantage's claims seem to be totally unfounded."
Her refund was promptly processed.
Another consumer we've been in touch with had a similar experience, and also had her money refunded.
"I just Googled some of the things I might use and found them to have the same discount as these guys," they said. "There was no overall discount for being a member."
CHOICE joins Senior Advantage
When we decided to find out for ourselves what Senior Advantage is all about, the upsell began immediately.
As soon as we joined, we were defaulted to the three-year $39 plan and had to deselect it to choose the one-year $19 plan.
Then we were hit with a lifetime membership offer for $49, down from $499, and told "this offer is only available on this page and you will never see it again".
A fictional CEO?
We skipped that and were treated to a warm webpage greeting by president and CEO Richard Williams, a person who doesn't seem to exist – at least not in affiliation with Senior Advantage – outside the webpage. (A thorough Google search came up with nothing.) A reverse image search revealed that the CEO image is a stock photo.
As with all the retailers we checked, the Senior Advantage Chemist Warehouse offers were already available at Chemist Warehouse – there were no special Senior Advantage deals.
Deals on offer – but not from Senior Advantage
When we clicked one of the Senior Advantage Woolworths links to "claim this deal", we were taken to Woolies' half-price specials page, with offers for items such as cheap solid air fresheners and cosmetic brushes. To be blunt, it looked like all the stuff that Woolies couldn't sell, which we'd paid $19 to view. Meanwhile, Woolworths told us it has no connection to Senior Advantage.
When we clicked the Coles link on Senior Advantage to "claim this deal", we were taken to Coles' half-price specials page, whose lineup was similar to the Woolies offerings. The Coles Group (which includes Liquorland) also told us it had no connection to Senior Advantage.
In short, the "claim this deal" links on the Senior Advantage website merely take you to the discount pages of the respective retailers' websites. Crucially, these pages were already there to begin with – and freely available to any shopper with an internet connection.
And some of the offers were really off target. The Senior Advantage "claim this deal" Bunnings offer, for instance, took us to the Bunnings "Power Pass" webpage, a Bunnings product for professional tradespeople, not everyday shoppers.
The 'claim this deal' links on the Senior Advantage website merely take you to the discount pages of the respective retailers' websites
The website also clicked through to Aldi's super-savers webpage, IGA's low-prices-every-day webpage, and Chemist Warehouse and Liquorland discount offers.
While promoting the offers as part of its services to members, Senior Advantage says its members are subject to the terms and conditions of these third party businesses, though it may receive click-through revenue from some of them.
Senior Advantage says it's there to help seniors. Yet there were no questions about age during the sign-up process, and none of the discounted products on the various retailers' websites seemed particularly suitable for older people. The other offerings on the website were also sketchy.
The 'budgeting tool' on offer is a low-tech webpage that lets you input your expenses to see how much you've spent from day to day, something you could find for free on ASIC's Moneysmart website. (Free budget calculators are also available from the big four banks.)
We contacted Senior Advantage for an explanation of the offers on its website, but didn't receive a response
The Keto diet meal plan that Senior Advantage offers is a questionable recommendation for ageing Australians. This is because the Keto diet, which is meant to help people lose weight by eating a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet, has been criticised by health experts and can have unpleasant side effects.
An open book?
In fairness, Senior Advantage's 'Best Discount Book 2020' list discounts available to Australian seniors in a number of local markets, which could be useful for some people. But this information would already be available on the businesses' websites without reference to the Senior Advantage book.
But it's also available for free on the website hosting the Senior Advantage advertorial.
It's also fair to say that some older Australians might benefit from a website that curates available discounts, although that doesn't justify the dodgy marketing and inflated promises.
We contacted Senior Advantage for an explanation of the offers on its website, but didn't receive a response.
RMIT expert: 'this is not unusual'
Dr Torgeir Aleti, a lecturer in marketing at RMIT, says Senior Advantage is probably an example "of businesses getting more creative in deceiving consumers online". (Aleti recently helped conduct an RMIT research project on the use of technology by older Australians, 'Shaping Connections'.)
"Typically, these schemes are set up around popular Google search terms, 'discounts for seniors' being an example of a popular search term," Aleti says, adding that "this is not unusual".
From a website alone, it's often very hard to figure out where the business is actually from and exactly who's behind itDr Torgeir Aleti, RMIT
"Aggressive search-engine marketing is then employed to feature favourably in Google search results. Tactics here may include link-building via review sites by writing fake reviews as well as using blogs, social media or other websites."
All of which accords with what we've been hearing from consumers, whose Facebook and other social media accounts seem to have become a marketing tool for Senior Advantage in recent months.
One for a scam list?
Aleti says trying to find out who's behind these kinds of operations is difficult at best.
"When we're talking about online companies, it's always difficult to say where they actually operate and who they're legally bound to," Aleti says.
"From a website alone, it's often very hard to figure out where the business is actually from and exactly who's behind it. And it's easy to hide that information from consumers.
"I can only speculate, but there's nothing to suggest that the culprits are actually in Australia, but they're working through someone that develops software in Lithuania because it will be much cheaper. There could be a very complicated layer of companies involved in this. Often the best you can do is put companies like this on some sort of scam list."
Aleti also questions the authenticity of Senior Advantage's five-star reviews.
"When you click on the person who reviewed it, you can see that they signed up for an account more or less the same day that they wrote the review," Aleti says. "And when you see those types of things, you start questioning whether that's a fake review."
Is it misleading and deceptive?
CHOICE asked the ACCC whether the tactics employed by Senior Advantage amounted to a violation of Australian Consumer Law. We also asked whether it was legal for a company doing business in Australia to restrict any dispute resolution to the Lithuanian legal system.
International companies conducting business in Australia are required to comply with the Australian Consumer LawACCC spokesperson
An ACCC spokesperson told us there were a number of potential violations: "If a business supplies a paid membership service that offers certain benefits to consumers but fails to adequately disclose that these benefits are already available to consumers without a membership, that may be misleading or deceptive conduct in breach of the Australian Consumer Law (ACL)," the spokesperson said.
The ACCC also told us that defaulting consumers to a more expensive membership option than was initially advertised is illegal.
Our jurisdiction, our laws
As for having to settle any disputes in Lithuania, "the issue of jurisdiction can be complex," the spokesperson said. "However, international companies conducting business in Australia are required to comply with the ACL.
"Businesses cannot make misleading representations to consumers or rely on unfair contract terms to limit their obligations under the ACL.
"This may include attempts to restrict any dispute resolution under a contract to the legal system of a foreign country. Consumers that have a claim under the ACL can pursue that claim through the Australian legal system."
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.