Scammers have wasted no time capitalising on a significant Federal Court ruling, with the ACCC flagging reports of fraudulent calls after Airbnb was penalised $15m and ordered to pay $15m compensation for misleading around 63,000 Australians about its prices.
The ruling – which brings to a conclusion an action instigated by the ACCC in June 2022 – comes after Airbnb was found to have misrepresented the price of accommodation on its sites by showing prices for Australian accommodation with a dollar sign but no indication that the prices were actually in US dollars.
Between January 2018 and August 2021 this practice meant that around 63,000 users, who collectively made around 77,000 accommodation bookings, were charged much more after they were billed in US dollars – with currency conversion rates and related bank fees meaning that they ultimately paid significantly more for the bookings than they expected.
The global accommodation giant – which admitted it had undertaken misleading or deceptive conduct, and made false or misleading representations about its products, in breach of Australian Consumer Law (ACL) sections 18 and 29 – will have to run annual training for company directors and employees to ensure they understand their obligations under the ACL.
Echoing a recent government commitment to force digital giants to improve consumer complaints handling, Airbnb will also be required to develop a formal compliance program, including a consumer law complaints handling system to ensure that Australian consumers have recourse for any similar issues in the future.
The penalties provide a “meaningful outcome” to punish Airbnb’s sustained misleading pricing practices – which caused more than 2,000 complaints from Australian consumers who “reasonably” assumed the prices they were seeing were in Australian dollars, ACCC chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb said as the Federal Court ruling was announced.
“By paying in US dollars, these consumers were charged more than they expected to pay and were deprived of a chance to make an informed decision about whether to make the booking because of this misleading conduct regarding the price.”
“We took this case to send a strong signal to large digital platforms like Airbnb that they must comply with the ACL and not mislead consumers.”
Scammers pounce on the opportunity
Under a court-enforceable undertaking with the ACCC, Airbnb will enable affected consumers to lodge compensation payments that are expected to average $230 per consumer, with an online portal to be established for handling compensation claims within 30 days.
Airbnb, or its agent for the undertaking, Deloitte Australia, will directly contact affected consumers within 45 days to discuss compensation, and will pay valid claims from eligible users within 60 days after they are lodged.
Yet while those terms give the company until 5 February to contact users, scammers wasted no time capitalising on the opportunity that the judgement provides – with the ACCC reporting that it has already received reports of scammers calling people and promising to help them get their refund.
The scammers “may be using this media release” to convince victims that their claims are real,” the ACCC warned, advising recipients of unsolicited offers not to provide personal information to anybody who calls them “out of the blue”, not to provide anybody with access to their computer or bank account, and not to click on a link or attachment in an unexpected text message or email.
“If you receive a call from anyone offering to help you with a refund, hang up immediately.”
Australians lost $7.9 million to rebate scams – one of several ‘unexpected money’ scams that have collectively taken $11.9 million from victims during the year to November, according to ACCC Scamwatch figures.
And while many Australians are wising up to the ever-present threat posed by scammers, criminals have remained busy through the year – with one Sydney man recently arrested and charged with sending more than 17 million scam SMS messages purporting to be from organisations including Australia Post and Linkt, and others using new tactics including voice-simulating AI to trick recipients into forking over their money.
A new Scams Code Framework, recently outlined in a Treasury consultation paper, would require banks, telecommunications providers and digital platform operators to implement “robust measures” against scams – the latest step in the government’s war on scammers that this year saw the creation of a dedicated National Anti-Scams Centre as unsuspecting victims continued to be hit.