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Financial counsellors welcome Westpac ‘savings buffer’ initiative

Financial counsellors from across Australia have today welcomed a new Westpac policy, which will see hardship customers offered the option of building a savings buffer.

Some of Westpac’s customers will be able to reduce their home loan repayments, giving them some financial breathing space.

The bank aims to work with customers experiencing financial hardship to build a savings buffer of at least $100 a month.

Quotes

“This is really is great news for those customers who are in financial hardship. It will help them cope better with some of life’s emergencies,” said the Chair of the Financial Counselling Association of NSW, Pauline Smith.

“A savings buffer will give Westpac customers experiencing hardship a better chance of paying off some of their debts, without putting them under enormous stress,” said the Chair of Financial Counselling Victoria, Carly Baker.

“This initiative is incredibly important and one that will have a positive impact on people experiencing financial hardship. We hope the other banks will now follow suit,” said Wendy Black, the Chair of the Financial Counselling Association of WA.

“Financial counsellors know that we all experience unexpected expenses from time to time. This new policy means those customers building a savings buffer will be better able to cope,” said Fiona Moore, the Chair of Financial Counselling Tasmania.

“This will give many of Westpac’s customers experiencing hardship peace of mind and will go a long way to helping them cope with unexpected expenses and debt,” said Carolyn Piper, the Chair of the South Australian Financial Counselling Association.

“Westpac has taken the lead on this, and we encourage other banks to adopt similar policies for their customers in financial hardship,” said Vicki Penner, the Chair of Financial Counsellor’s Association of Queensland.

“A small savings buffer can make all the difference to those in financial hardship. This policy makes sense for the bank and its’ customers,” said Nicole Flaws, the President of Financial Counsellors ACT.

Please contact Maura Angle from Financial Counselling Australia on 0418 334 121 to arrange interviews.

FCA responds to TIO report – How many more wake up calls does the industry need?

What will it take before the telecommunications industry accepts that there are systemic problems with the way they sell and market their products?

There is yet another example today, with the release by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) of its latest systemic issues report. The report documents poor sales practices, hidden costs and unclear information.

These findings reinforce those in FCA’s survey of financial counsellors, released just last month (April 2021). Financial counsellors said that:

  • Overall, telco hardship practices are poor
  • Mis-selling is common throughout the industry, with around 80% of the financial counsellors who responded to the survey saying they have clients with debts where mis-selling has occurred
  • Affordability checks are inadequate, which places people under financial stress

Financial Counselling Australia’s CEO, Fiona Guthrie, said that it is very clear that the telecommunications industry drives demand for financial counselling.

The telecommunications industry has been supportive in principle of an industry funding model for financial counselling but has called for more data.

Here is yet another piece.

“Financial counsellors are at the frontline, helping people who are struggling financially. We’ve been telling the telco industry about some of their poor practices for a long time. It’s time for them to fix the problems”, said Ms Guthrie.

The TIO report also follows last week’s Federal Court decision, which saw Telstra fined $50 million plus costs for unconscionable conduct involving mis-selling to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in remote communities.

Financial counsellors assist people experiencing financial difficulty. They provide information and advice to help people tackle their financial problems and to minimise the risk of issues occurring in the future. Financial counselling services are free, confidential and independent.

Media Contact:

Georgia Lenton-Williams, Communications Advisor

Phone: 0422 707 136 Email: [email protected]

Massive court penalty of $50 million against Telstra sends a very clear message

Today’s $50 million fine against Telstra for unconscionable conduct sends a clear message to the industry that mis-selling will not be tolerated.

The ACCC began investigating allegations of unconscionable conduct by Telstra after financial counsellors approached the regulator with 100 examples of Indigenous people from across the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia being mis-sold telco products.

Telstra staff in five stores convinced Indigenous consumers to sign up to multiple post-paid mobile contracts which they didn’t understand and could not afford. Many accumulated massive debts – one as much as $19,000.

The ACCC then instituted Federal Court proceedings against Telstra for unconscionable conduct. Telstra admitted it breached consumer law and the court has now confirmed that the proposed fine of $50 million – the second largest in Australia under the Australian Consumer Law – is appropriate.

Based on the experience of financial counsellors, mis-selling in the telco industry more broadly remains a live issue. 80% of the financial counsellors in our survey in April 2021 said that they had clients where mis-selling was an issue. The Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code is not working to protect consumers.

Telstra is working constructively with financial counsellors in its remediation program and we welcome their ongoing commitment to this process.

Quotes

Fiona Guthrie AM, CEO of Financial Counselling Australia

“We welcome this development and are also pleased to see that Telstra, in addition to the remediation actions they have embarked upon to date, have formally acknowledged the damage their behaviour has caused.”

“Financial counsellors have worked for three years together to see this ACCC action succeed. Today’s announcement is an important milestone but it’s not the end of our campaign to see mis-selling in the telecommunications industry stamped out.”

Peter Gartlan, Financial Counselling Australia

“This conduct should never have happened in the first place. The ACCC has now sent a clear message to corporate Australia and other telcos, that this sort of behaviour is not on. It causes harm to individuals and families.”

“This case shows the vital role financial counsellors play in ensuring vulnerable consumers are protected from unconscionable conduct.”

“Time and time again, financial counsellors in outback towns and cities have seen clients from remote communities struggling under the weight of massive Telstra debts – one client had a debt of more than $19,000.”

“Financial counsellors are pleased that Telstra is waiving these debts, but we fear there are more remote people who still have debts with telcos and also need redress.”

ENDS –

For comment please contact:

Peter Gartlan on 0457 700 028 or Maura Angle on 0418 334 121

More than 650 people registered for Financial Counselling Australia’s conference in Darwin

More than 650 people have registered for Financial Counselling Australia’s (FCA) annual conference, Monday May 17 – Friday May 21.

Around 60 of these registrations are for the virtual ‘zoom me in’ version of the conference, which allows attendees to participate remotely via video streaming technology, while the remaining attendees will visit the conference in person at Darwin.

This is a remarkable outcome, as last year’s conference was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions throughout Australia.

“Earlier this year, we didn’t know if we’d be able to get this event off the ground. Despite our sense of optimism, at times things seemed unpredictable with travel restrictions,” said Fiona Guthrie, the CEO of FCA.

“We couldn’t have secured more than 650 registrations without the support and enthusiasm of everyone involved – we’re extremely grateful for that,” said Ms Guthrie.

In collaboration with the Northern Territory government, FCA has implemented a comprehensive health safety plan to mitigate any risks associated with the pandemic.

“We’re determined that our 2021 conference will go ahead. In fact, we’ve planned meticulously to make it happen. It’s great that COVID-19 case numbers are low enough now that we can travel interstate.

“Financial counsellors and capability workers, community lawyers, financial regulators, industry representatives and many others will travel from far and wide to sunny Darwin,” said Ms Guthrie.

Conference attendees are encouraged to explore the Northern Territory and to support local businesses.

“We had feedback from Darwin-based financial counsellors that the end of JobKeeper and reduction of JobSeeker has hit some small businesses hard. We want to support the local economy.

“We’ve planned activities for our conference attendees around Darwin: the deckchair cinema, Mindil Beach Markets and a walking tour, as well as visits to local bars and restaurants,” Ms Guthrie said.

The conference will take place at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel on the esplanade. Some events will also be held at the nearby Darwin Entertainment Centre.

Please note that FCA’s conference is not open to the public. It is a closed event for people who are part of the financial counselling sector, as well as financial regulators and service providers.

About financial counselling in the Northern Territory

Financial counsellors assist people experiencing financial difficulty. They provide information and advice to help people tackle their financial problems and to minimise the risk of issues occurring in the future. Financial counselling services are free, confidential and independent.

In the Northern Territory, financial counselling services are provided by several community organisations, such as Anglicare NT, Somerville Community Services, Catholic Care NT, HK Money Management, Lutheran Community Care and MoneyMob.

For people who are struggling with debt, the best way to access financial counselling is to call the National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007. Callers are put through to a financial counsellor in their state or territory, who can refer them to face-to-face services if needed.

Media contact

Maura Angle, FCA Director of Community Engagement

0418 334 121 or email [email protected]

Major National Debt Helpline campaign: act early if you’re experiencing financial stress

The National Debt Helpline has launched a campaign encouraging people in financial stress to contact a free and confidential financial counsellor.

The launch of the campaign follows the end of the various financial support arrangements put in place by Government and industry during the pandemic.

The JobKeeper and JobSeeker supplements finished at the end of March, meaning that many Australians now have less money to make ends meet.

Other financial support is also tapering or has ended. These supports include standard loan deferrals from banks, rental moratorium arrangements and protection from energy disconnection.

“The next few months are going to be tough and worrying for many people. We want them to know there is free assistance available through the National Debt Helpline,” said Fiona Guthrie, CEO of Financial Counselling Australia.

“The time to act is now. Don’t wait for your bills and debts to spiral out of control. We care, we can help, and we are free,” she said.

The awareness campaign involves sponsored social media content, posters and short videos in medical clinics across the country, and advertisements on taxis and buses.

The National Debt Helpline is a not-for-profit service that helps people in Australia tackle their debt problems.

Its website has helpful guides on how to deal with bills and debt and there is a helpline on 1800 007 007, which is staffed by professional financial counsellors who provide a independent and confidential service.

Financial counsellors can advise people about how to get through the next few months. For example, by providing guidance about accessing hardship arrangements with lenders and utility providers.

“Financial counsellors are trained to deal with people in financial stress. We help people who are worried about their debt and bills to get back on track financially,” Ms Guthrie said.

“We’re also warning people to be wary of services offering to negotiate your debts or fix your credit report for a fee.

“These services do not always act in the best interests of the people they purport to help. They can cost thousands of dollars, for not much in return,” Ms Guthrie said.

National Debt Helpline vehicle advertisements:

 

 

For more information call Maura Angle on 0418 334 121 or email [email protected]

Report shows telcos must improve responses to customers facing financial hardship

A new report by Financial Counselling Australia clearly shows that the telecommunications industry must improve its response to customers who are experiencing financial hardship.

The report, ‘Telcos and Financial Hardship: Feedback from the Frontline’, has two parts:

  • A survey of financial counsellors
  • Desk top research on other relevant studies and data

Every financial counsellor who took part in the survey said they have clients struggling to pay their telco bills. A quarter of respondents said more than 50% of their clients are struggling to pay.

Telcos refer their customers to financial counsellors and benefit when the customers get back on track.

Other key findings of the report show:

  • Overall, telco hardship practices are poor
  • Mis-selling is common throughout the industry, with around 80% of financial counsellors saying they have clients with debts where mis-selling has occurred
  • Affordability checks are inadequate, which places people under financial stress

Financial counsellors rated the three major telcos on the way they treated customers in hardship, where 1 was the lowest rating and 10 the highest. Telstra scored 6.2, Optus 5.6 and TPG/Vodafone 4.4. These ratings are poor.

Nearly a quarter of Australia’s 950 financial counsellors took part in the survey. This was a remarkable result, given the survey was only open for the three days immediately before Easter.

The timing of the survey coincided with changes in the level of government support that took effect at the end of March 2021: the end of JobKeeper and a reduction in the JobSeeker payment.

These changes emphasise the need for telcos to improve their hardship practices and to work collaboratively with financial counsellors, to help struggling customers manage with less income following the pandemic.

Financial counsellors assist people experiencing financial difficulty. They provide information and advice to help people tackle their financial problems and to minimise the risk of issues occurring in the future. Financial counselling services are free, confidential and independent.

Quotes from the CEO of Financial Counselling Australia, Fiona Guthrie AM:

“One of the major drivers of people being unable to pay their telco bills is mis-selling. Too many people end up with devices they don’t need, don’t understand and can’t afford.”

“Financial counsellors gave example after example in the survey of mis-selling to people who were vulnerable. These groups of people then end up in financial hardship.”

“Telco financial hardship practices just aren’t good enough. Some of the problems financial counsellors pointed to included telcos not offering hardship arrangements to customers at all, or not offering affordable arrangements.”

“As Australia recovers from the pandemic, telcos must ensure that people in financial hardship are treated fairly.”

“Telcos provide essential services. Without a phone or internet, people miss out on jobs, can’t make medical appointments or stay in touch with government services. That’s why telcos must support their vulnerable customers.”

Media contact:

Georgia Lenton-Williams, Communications Advisor
Phone: 0422 707 136 Email: [email protected]

Free financial counselling for flood victims

Financial Counselling Australia (FCA) is reminding individuals and small business owners who have been affected by the floods in NSW and Queensland that they have access to free financial counselling.

“Financial counsellors play a vital role in helping people respond, rebuild and recover from natural disasters like flood,” said Helen Davis, the General Manager of the Small Business Financial Counselling Support Line.

Financial counsellors support people by providing free, confidential and independent advice.

“We want flood victims to know there are two helpful services they can access for free. The National Debt Helpline for individuals in financial stress and the Small Business Financial Counselling Support Line, for small business owners,” Ms Davis said.

Financial counsellors provide advice and assistance on a wide range of financial matters including:

  • Disputes with insurance companies, the pros and cons of cash settlements
  • Difficulties paying mortgages, rent or utility bills
  • Negotiating with banks and other credit providers
  • Assistance accessing government grants
  • Accessing Centrelink payments

It’s important to note that financial counsellors are not planners or advisors. They don’t provide investment advice nor are they lenders.

“These floods are having an enormous impact on the communities affected. These people now have to rebuild and recover and it’s important for them to know financial counsellors are here to help as much as possible,” said Ms Davis.

Anyone struggling financially due to the floods can contact the National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007 or visit ndh.org.au. Small business owners can call the Small Business Financial Counselling support line on 1800 413 828 or visit smallbusinessbushfire.org.au.

Media Contact

Maura Angle, Director of Community Engagement: 0418 334 121 or email [email protected]

“The future of safe lending is in your hands” – Financial counsellors plead with Senate cross bench to block government plan to axe laws

Australia’s financial counsellors are pleading with crossbench Senators to block the Federal Government’s bill to axe responsible lending laws. The bill will amend the National Consumer Credit Protection Act 2009 by removing responsible lending obligations for lenders, with the exception of small amount credit contracts (SACCs) and consumer leases.

FCA Safe Lending Letter MR

Buy now pay later sector must be regulated by Government NOT itself

 

Consumer groups have united to call for Federal Government regulation of buy now pay later (BNPL) services to protect consumers and put all credit providers on a level playing field.

Today the Australian Finance Industry Association released a self-regulatory code of conduct for BNPL providers. While it’s positive to see the industry introduce a code with contractually enforceable commitments, it is not a substitute for adequate regulation by Government under Australia’s credit laws.

BNPL is credit and should be regulated like other credit products.

Organisations at the coal face of consumer complaints and hardship – Financial Rights Legal Centre, Financial Counselling Australia, Consumer Action Legal Centre and CHOICE – are calling on the Government to follow the lead of the United Kingdom which just last month announced it would regulate the BNPL industry.

Consumer groups see the harm BNPL services cause first-hand. This includes an increasing number of people who end up in unaffordable debt through using them, poor industry hardship practices and excessive late fees.

While the promise of BNPL is that they do not charge interest, for some people the cost of late fees or account keeping fees can be just as expensive as a credit card. BNPL providers also charge a fee to retailers of between 3% – 6%. These costs will be passed on to all consumers.

A 2020 report by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) found that one in five people had missed payments on their BNPL debts. Worryingly, one in five people had also gone without essential items, such as food, in order to make a payment.

It also found 55% of users had at least two BNPL contracts on the go at once.

BNPL services are not currently required to hold a credit licence[1] and are not subject to consumer protections under the National Consumer Credit Protection Act 2009, despite the fact that some of these services loan large amounts up to $30,000.

This means that ASIC cannot take compliance and enforcement action for breach of lending standards by BNPL providers. The code only requires BNPL providers to assess if a borrower can make the first payment – there is no requirement to assess whether the subsequent payments are affordable.

[1] Comm Bank offers a BNPL product through a partnership with international BNPL provider Klarna and therefore has a credit licence. Klarna is not part of this code.

Quotes attributable to Financial Rights Legal Centre Chief Executive Officer Karen Cox:

These services are growing at a breathtaking rate, and ASIC’s research has shown that at least one in five consumers are missing payments. As this industry continues to grow, we will see increased debts and increased financial hardship.

Sadly, many people including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are lured into BNPL are becoming embroiled in unsustainable, long-term debt. BNPL companies use a simple but seductive psychological trick to attract customers. Spreading out the cost of an item makes it feel less expensive, but that doesn’t mean you can afford it.

Right now, there is no obligation for BNPL providers to assess a person’s ability to repay debt or handle a consumer’s complaint fairly. We are glad to see the new Code requires membership in AFCA, but that is no replacement for proper regulation.

Quotes attributable to Financial Counselling Australia Chief Executive Officer Fiona Guthrie:

BNPL providers run a mile at the mention of the word “credit”, telling their customers the service is all about better budgeting. What they tell retailers however is much closer to the truth – that BNPL encourages people to spend more.

What BNPL providers are really doing is turning a loophole in the law into a gaping hole. It is worth remembering that BNPL is available from just a few hundred dollars to $30,000 and the code contemplates even higher amounts.

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. We should ditch ideology and recognise that BNPL is credit and should be regulated like other credit. If we fail to act, more and more Australians will be harmed.

Take Susan*, a client of a financial counsellor who was spending 40% of her income
on BNPL debts and didn’t have enough money left for day to day living expenses, including rent. Or John, a pensioner with early signs of dementia who was signed up to $14,000 of dodgy solar panels using BNPL when a salesman called at his home.

Quotes attributable to Consumer Action Law Centre Chief Executive Officer Gerard Brody:

The Financial Services Royal Commission Final Report identified the limits of self-regulation including inadequate standards, lack of compliance, weak monitoring and enforcement and no consequences for breaches. Too often self-regulation is just a fig leaf – while there are some standards, unfortunately this code does not require every BNPL loan to be suitable and affordable for the individual customer.

So-called innovation in the financial services sector is too often focused on exploiting regulatory loopholes. Innovation that benefits the community should be able to comply with consumer protection laws to enhance people’s financial wellbeing.

The unregulated BNPL market has grown substantially in the last few years, including substantial growth during 2020. There is no doubt that this unrestrained growth poses potential harms to consumers and it needs to be brought within regulation to both protect consumers and ensure it is sustainable.

Quotes attributable to CHOICE, Director of Campaigns and Communications, Erin Turner:

Self-regulation of the Buy Now, Pay Later sector will not be enough to fix the issues we’re seeing like high fees, inappropriate lending and pushy marketing of debt to Australians.

The Buy Now Pay Later sector is now selling debt for dental treatments, solar panels and other large purchases. It is credit in everything but name so the consumer protection laws for credit should apply in full, not a weak industry code.

The Code will see businesses that fail to comply with basic standards face “naming and shaming” rather than the penalties or legal action other lenders face for significant breaches of consumer credit protections. This sets an inappropriately low bar for a growing industry.

Media contacts:

For an interview with Fiona Guthrie at Financial Counselling Australia, contact Maura Angle on 0418 334 121 or email [email protected]

For an interview with Erin Turner at CHOICE, contact 0430 172 669

For an interview with Karen Cox at Financial Rights, contact Marianna Papadakis 0414 729 006

For an interview with Gerard Brody at Consumer Action, contact Mark Pearce on 0413 299 567 or email [email protected]

Financial counsellors label increase to JobSeeker nowhere near enough

Financial counsellors are disappointed with today’s decision by the Federal Government to only increase JobSeeker by $50 a fortnight.

“This is well below what is needed. We support a permanent and reasonable increase to JobSeeker, Youth Allowance and other income support payments,” said the CEO of Financial Counselling Australia, Fiona Guthrie.

The Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) had called for at least an extra $25 a day, but instead the Government has only announced an extra $25 a week.

“When JobSeeker was first introduced to help with the impact of COVID, demand for financial counselling reduced because many of our clients had enough money to live on for the first time in ages,” said Ms Guthrie.

“While any increase is better than nothing, this does not go anywhere near enough to help the most vulnerable.

“The Federal Government must ensure that people are given enough money to live on. This minuscule increase is simply cruel.

“This is not the sort of Australia we want,” Ms Guthrie said.

“We urge anyone in financial stress to contact a financial counsellor. They can speak with one by calling the National Debt Helpline (NDH) on 1800 007 007 or find their closest face-to-face service by going to www.ndh.org.au,” Ms Guthrie said.

Financial counsellors are skilled professionals who provide FREE, independent and confidential advice for people in financial hardship. They are not planners or advisers. They don’t provide investment advice or earn commissions.

To organise an interview with Fiona Guthrie, call Maura Angle on 0418 334 121 or email [email protected]

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