National

NT Harvey Norman customers repaid $1.5m

By AAP Newswire

The actions of a Harvey Norman salesman in Alice Springs who falsified information to sign up Indigenous people to store credit cards and large debts have forced the retailer's finance provider to pay back the money.

Consumer credit provider Latitude Financial is now about three-quarters of the way through paying back about $1.5 million.

Customers with little stable income and limited English were given easy access between 2014 and 2016 to credit limits of several thousand dollars or higher, well in excess of what was needed for televisions and white goods costing less than $1000.

Many products were dumped in the town's Todd River, which runs dry most of the time.

Financial counsellors from Lutheran Community Care discovered what was happening and told the Financial Rights Legal Centre, who alerted the Australian Securities and Investments Commission resulting in an investigation.

The Harvey Norman employee was sacked and Latitude agreed, in consultation with ASIC, to fully repay all affected customers.

ASIC is still investigating whether to take more action.

The Financial Rights Legal Centre's policy and advocacy officer Drew MacRae could not legally comment on the specific case but said exploitation of vulnerable people was common in the retail industry, where interest-free and buy now-pay later deals are common.

"They end up pushing this finance on to unsuspecting folk, who find themselves getting into a lot of debt," he told AAP.

"The people benefitting are the retailers themselves because they have been able to flog these goods using what seems to be a sweet deal of good credit and they reap the benefits of those sales.

"The retailers' salespeople involved are not vetting applications that are poor or low quality.

"We believe they have a responsibility to."

Mr MacRae said the legal centre often saw customers that had their goods seized and were forced to pay debts back for years, which can be deducted from welfare payments, after being given credit limits for as much as $5000 despite only wanting a $500 fridge.

Unlike mortgages and other loans, credit provided by retailers is not regulated by the National Credit Code and they do not have to hold an Australian Financial Services Licence .

Complaints about unethical practices in retail, including conflicts of interest such as commissions and sales targets, were made at the Banking Royal Commission.

Royal commissioner Kenneth Hayne has recommended the current point-of-sale exemption of retail dealers from the National Credit Code be removed.

Federal legislation is due to be introduced in the current fiscal year.

A Latitude Financial spokesman said the company "was deeply appalled" when it became aware of what had happened in July 2017, it had paid back most customers and was working with Lutheran Community Care to do so.

"We have accepted all recommendations from PwC to strengthen our sales processes, including increased monitoring and training of sales staff," he said.