Have you ever felt yourself being pushed into buying a product you did not want, or suffered harassment to such an extent you felt you had no option but to do what the business owner demanded?
The Australian Consumer Law prohibits businesses from using coercion, undue harassment or physical force in connection with the supply of, or payment for goods or services, or the sale or grant of an interest in land.
In this article we explain when a business has stepped over the line, and what you can do about it.
What is harassment and coercion?
Harassment means persistent disturbance or torment. Undue harassment is a bit more than that – it occurs when the frequency, nature or content of unwelcome approaches is designed to intimidate or demoralise, tire out or exhaust a person.
Coercion involves actual or threatened force or compulsion that restricts a person's choice or freedom to act.
Situations that may amount to undue harassment or coercion include:
- a very aggressive sales representative who stays for a really long time, ignores your requests to leave and will only leave if you buy something
- debt collectors who repeatedly phone a debtor about a debt, at all hours of the day, using an aggressive and abusive tone
- outrageous methods of hard selling, such as using private information about a consumer to force them to agree to a purchase.
Real-life examples of harassment and coercion
- A woman from a non-English-speaking background who lost her job and was caring for her elderly mother fell behind on her credit card payments. The bank sold her debt to a debt collection agency that began making threatening calls to her, including misleading and deceptive calls. One of these was a claim that if the woman left Australia she would not be able to return while the debt was unpaid. The agency also contacted the woman's friend and pretended she had applied for a home loan and said they needed to verify her application. They then used the information obtained from her friend to embarrass the woman. Despite a request that further contact be in writing or through her financial counsellor, the agency continued to phone her. This type of harassment would be considered undue harassment.
- A retirement village was sold by its owners. While the sale was going through, an energy company salesperson visited residents at the village. The salesperson told the residents that due to the sale, their power would be cut off unless they changed energy supplier. Almost all residents changed to the new energy supplier. The misrepresentation by the salesperson would be considered coercion.
- A debt collection company told a debtor her husband would be served with her bankruptcy papers and that she couldn't give another address for service. The debtor was patronised and interrupted and became more upset as the call went on. She was told she couldn't negotiate payments any more, that there was no point in talking to her bank about the debt – the debt collection company had the debt now – and she needed to pay it or bankruptcy proceedings would be taken out and served at her family home whether she was there or not. This would be considered undue harassment.
- Some private parking stations have been known to engage in undue harassment or coercion when imposing "fines" on people for not displaying tickets or parking contrary to signs in their carparks. The harassing behaviour includes issuing notices that mimic legitimate council or government fine notices, threatening legal action without proper authority, and harassing people to pay. CHOICE has previously looked into this bad behaviour.
- Three publishing companies sent correspondence to businesses that led them to believe they had agreed to advertise in certain magazines, when in fact they hadn't. They were then asked to sign documents to obtain free copies of the magazines, and were then told that the document they'd signed was an agreement to buy advertising. The companies used harassment and coercion to pursue payment, including threatening legal proceedings. The publishing companies and their director were ordered to pay penalties totalling $400,000 after they admitted they had engaged in conduct that included harassment and coercion.
What can I do?
If you feel you've been unduly harassed or coerced into buying something or paying for something, you can contact the ACCC or your state or territory fair trading or consumer protection agency for advice. If a business has been guilty of this conduct there may be remedies available to you. You'll need to seek advice that is relevant to your particular situation.