Virgin Money coughs up $30,600 for misleading advertising

Popular insurance and home loan provider Virgin Money has paid more than $30,000 in penalties after the Australian Securities and Investments Commission found it misled customers through online and television advertising.

ASIC issued three infringement notices imposing a penalty of $10,200 each. The notices related to the promotion of Virgin Money’s “Quick & Easy” life insurance product, which was advertised on television until May 2013 and online up to May this year.

The corporate regulator found while the advertisements claimed no health and lifestyle questions would be asked, the insurance application form contained specific health and lifestyle-related questions. Customers were queried about their smoking habits and weight and their responses used to calculate premiums and determine the coverage offered to them.

ASIC deputy chairman Peter Kell said in a statement the misleading advertisements were particularly concerning because life insurance is such an important decision.

“Purchasing life insurance is an important decision and consumers should be able to confidently rely on representations made to them in advertising,” he said.

Melissa Monks, special counsel at law firm King & Wood Mallesons, told SmartCompany ASIC’s decision is sending a clear message to businesses.

“This is a good reminder to ensure that the terms and conditions of the claims you make in a particular campaign are accurate because the fallouts can be quite significant,” she said. “These things come very easily to a regulator’s attention when they are so obviously wrong.”

The payment of infringement notices is not an admission of a contravention of the Australian Securities and Investment Commission Act. However, Monks says infringement notices are a cheap and quick enforcement mechanism for the corporate regulator.

“It is still not an ideal outcome [for the business] and many consumers see it as some sort of admission,” she said. “Increasingly regulators are using these and particularly ASIC. This is a good warning to the financial services industry that they really need to get their messaging right because the regulator is very willing to act.”

Monks also points to the non-financial repercussions cases such as this one have on businesses.

“The brand damage that flows from something like this is significant,” she said. “And the lack of confidence customers will have in the company going forward.”

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