Home Energy iSelect in court over alleged misleading claims about energy plan comparison service

Australia’s competition watchdog, the ACCC, is taking the online comparison website iSelect to court over allegations of misleading or deceptive conduct and false or misleading representations in relation to its energy plan comparison service.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has instituted proceedings in the Federal Court alleging that since at least November 2016, iSelect has claimed consumers using its website would benefit from iSelect comparing all plans available from its partner retailers in a specific location.

During this period, the ACCC says iSelect also claimed that it would recommend the most competitive plan to consumers.

The ACCC also alleges iSelect did not compare all available plans, and did not necessarily recommend the most competitive plan, but rather limited the number of plans it compared based on the commercial arrangement it had with retailers. iSelect did not disclose this information to consumers who used its service.

“iSelect told consumers it would help them compare all energy plans available in their area from all their partner retailers,” ACCC Chair Rod Sims said.

“But we claim they were actually favouring some partner retailers over others, such as those on its ‘Preferred Partner Program’ who were allowed to have more plans available on the iSelect website that excluded and targeted certain consumers. These preferred retailers paid iSelect higher commissions.”

The ACCC alleges that some partner retailers offered cheaper plans that were not made available in iSelect’s comparison results, with these cheaper plans accessible via the Australian Government’s Energy Made Easy website, which shows all energy plans available in a consumer’s area.

“We were particularly concerned with the issues raised about iSelect’s claims because we know consumers go to comparison sites to get the best deal, and for an impartial and objective comparison of complex energy plans. We allege they were not getting that so they may be paying more for electricity than they should be,” Sims said.

“When comparison sites mislead consumers, it further adds confusion to the already complicated retail energy market, denying people an informed choice on what is often a major household expense.

“Free commercial comparison sites are often driven by business relationships with retailers that impact their recommendations. This needs to be very clearly disclosed to consumers so they can make an informed decision about whether to use these services.

“The ACCC’s Retail Electricity Pricing Inquiry recommended a mandatory code for comparator websites that, if it was in place, would have meant that iSelect would have been unable to implement its ‘Preferred Partner Program’ in the way the ACCC alleges they did.

“In addition, we will continue to take action to address consumer and competition issues arising from opaque and complex pricing of essential services, in particular energy services which is a key compliance and enforcement priority for the ACCC this year,” Sims concluded.

The ACCC is seeking pecuniary penalties, injunctions, declarations, correctives and costs.

iSelect today issued a brief response to the ACCC announcement, saying that: "iSelect knows from speaking to its customers that many Australian households are struggling with high energy prices and are looking for help to find better value.  The company believes its energy comparison service strengthens competition, ethically and in accordance with industry practice.  

"As an Australian company, iSelect takes its obligations under Australian Consumer Law very seriously and has processes in place to ensure compliance.

"iSelect has worked cooperatively with ACCC throughout its investigation.  As the matter is now before the Federal Court, the Company is unable to make any further comment."

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Peter Dinham

Peter Dinham is a co-founder of iTWire and a 35-year veteran journalist and corporate communications consultant. He has worked as a journalist in all forms of media – newspapers/magazines, radio, television, press agency and now, online – including with the Canberra Times, The Examiner (Tasmania), the ABC and AAP-Reuters. As a freelance journalist he also had articles published in Australian and overseas magazines. He worked in the corporate communications/public relations sector, in-house with an airline, and as a senior executive in Australia of the world’s largest communications consultancy, Burson-Marsteller. He also ran his own communications consultancy and was a co-founder in Australia of the global photographic agency, the Image Bank (now Getty Images).

 

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