Up to 1.9 million Aussies picked clean by 'debt vultures' in 2020

author-avatar By on December 15, 2020
Up to 1.9 million Aussies picked clean by 'debt vultures' in 2020

Almost two million Australians fell victim to 'debt vultures' in 2020, and one consumer group says more regulation is needed in this space.

'Debt vultures' are generally defined as debt management services that often target people in financial hardship with poor quality debt advice and services, and may even offer conflicting advice, charge high hidden fees and leave people worse off than they were before. 

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According to Consumer Action Law Centre, approximately 1.4 to 1.9 million Australians have paid for debt management or credit repair services in the last 12 months.

These firms, almost entirely unregulated, have attracted plenty of attention during COVID, as more people flocked to them to escape their financial woes. 

For example, NAB in July said it would no longer deal with unlicensed debt operators, after finding out one in 10 of its customers in financial hardship had engaged with one. 

Consumer Action's research found almost one in five (17%) people reported an increased likelihood of using such services during the pandemic, and more than half (55%) have seen or heard advertising from them in the past year.

Consumer Action CEO Gerard Brody said debt vultures and a population struggling with bills was a "dangerous mix". 

“People are genuinely shocked when they discover the lack of rules and obligations on firms offering debt advice, debt negotiation, credit repair and money management services," Mr Brody said. 

The community expects the Government to introduce strong protections—that’s why 92% of Australians want the same protections against debt vultures as in the UK, where debt advice must be in your best interests and tailored to your individual circumstances."

The government did recently announce some legislation changes in this area, with debt management firms required to hold Australian credit licenses from April onwards. 

However, this will not cover debts related to energy, telcos, or other debts that are not credit products.

“The Morrison government is implementing the most significant reforms to Australia’s credit framework in a decade to increase the flow of credit to households and businesses, reduce red tape and strengthen protections for vulnerable consumers," Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said.

Mr Brody says more needs to be done. 

“The Federal Treasurer has taken a good first step in committing to licensing part of the industry, but this report shows reform must go further by banning upfront fees, introducing a best interests’ duty and covering the whole industry," he said. 

"Anything less would leave gaping holes and undermine the effectiveness of the reform."

Consumer Action's recommended debt vulture framework includes: 

  1. A high bar for entry by ASIC or another licensing organisation
  2. Ban upfront fees to stop rip-offs, as well as fees for no service 
  3. Make debt management firms members of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA)
  4. Have a duty to act in a client's best interests 
  5. Ban unsolicited selling to overcome high-pressure sales tactics 
  6. Require firms to inform people of free options (seen below). 

ASIC’s MoneySmart lists many helpful, free resources you can use such as:

  • The National Debt Helpline for help with food and bills (1800 007 007);

  • The Salvation Army (13 72 58) or St Vincent de Paul Society (13 18 12) for help with food and bills;

  • Household Relief Loans, which give interest-free loans for up to $3,000;

  • Centrelink crisis payments or advanced payments;

  • Temporary housing (see ASIC for a state-by-state list); and

  • Free financial counsellors in your area

Being debt-free the top priority 

According to Quantum Market Research, which conducted the research on behalf of Consumer Action, being ''debt-free' is the top symbol of success in 2020, the first time it has been so. 

This might partly explain why many Australians are flocking to debt management firms. 

According to the Reserve Bank, credit card debt, which is some of the most expensive debt in terms of interest rates, fell by 24% from March to September in 2020

At $21.2 billion our level of credit card debt is at a 16-year low, and is down almost 30% year-on-year. 

Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

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William Jolly joined Savings.com.au as a Financial Journalist in 2018, after spending two years at financial research firm Canstar. In William's articles, you're likely to find complex financial topics and products broken down into everyday language. He is deeply passionate about improving the financial literacy of Australians and providing them with resources on how to save money in their everyday lives.

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