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Harassment and coercion 

It is unlawful to use physical force, coerce or unduly harass someone about the supply of, or payment for, goods or services.

Undue harassment means unnecessary or excessive contact or communication with a person, to the point where that person feels intimidated, tired or demoralised.

Coercion involves force (actual or threatened) that restricts another person’s choice or freedom to act.

Unlike harassment, there is no requirement for behaviour to be repetitive in order to amount to coercion.

Financial institutions are entitled to attempt to collect debts but their conduct may be undue harassment or coercion when it involves frequent unwelcome approaches and requests or threats for payment. Laws relating to privacy, harassment and misleading or deceptive conduct apply to all businesses – including debt collection agencies.

For example, a woman went into arrears on her credit card debt when she lost her job and had to care for her ill mother. The bank sold the debt to a debt collection company. The company told the woman that, if she left Australia, she would not be able to return while the debt was unpaid.

The company also obtained details and other information about the woman’s family. They did this by contacting her friend, pretending the woman had applied for a home loan and seeking information to verify her home loan application.

The company used this information to embarrass the woman and continued to call her, despite her request that they contact her through her financial counsellor. The company’s actions would be considered harassment.

A retirement village was sold by its owners. This led to a change in management. During the transfer of ownership, an energy company salesperson visited residents. The door-to-door salesperson explained to all residents that because the management of the complex was changing, their power would be cut off unless they changed energy supplier. This would have to happen immediately to maintain their power supply.

Almost all of the residents signed with the new supplier. This created confusion for the residents, causing issues with payment plans, concessions, and multiple bills.

The salesman’s statements could be considered coercion.

The maximum civil and criminal penalties for harassment and coercion are $1.1 million for a body corporate and $220,000 for an individual.