The Federal Court has ordered hearing aid retailers to pay millions in penalties for misleading age pensioners with advertisements making false claims about products and services.
Oticon Australia Pty Ltd (Oticon) and Sonic Innovations Pty Ltd (Sonic), which own and operate over 200 hearing clinics across Australia, will pay penalties totalling $2.5 million for misleading advertisements for hearing aids sold through AudioClinic and HearingLife clinics.
The hearing aid retailers admitted to making false and misleading representations about hearing aids available to age pensioners under the Australian Government Hearing Services Program.
Around 80 per cent of hearing aids supplied in Australia are provided under the Government’s Hearing Program. Victims of this misconduct include age pensioners, pensioner concession card holders, veterans, and defence force personnel.
According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), the offending advertisements made claims that:
- in order to obtain a free hearing aid, pensioners had to book a free hearing test at an AudioClinic or HearingLife clinic before the deadline in the advertisement, when there was in fact no time limit;
- the free hearing aids included wireless technology that would allow users to connect them to digital devices like televisions and mobile phones, when in fact these were additional accessories sold separately at an extra cost; and
- any user of the advertised hearing aid would no longer miss any conversations, when in fact this may depend on a person’s individual circumstances and the nature of his or her hearing impairment.
“Many of the pensioners targeted by the advertisements were vulnerable due to their age and hearing loss. The misleading representations by Sonic and Oticon created a false sense of urgency for these consumers to book a hearing test and led them into a sales process based on incorrect information,” said ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court.
“This conduct is unacceptable particularly because it targeted vulnerable pensioners. The decision from the Federal Court sends a strong message to the hearing aid industry about the importance of ensuring all representations to consumers are accurate and not misleading.”
In addition to paying massive fines, Sonic and Oticon will have to offer refunds to customers who purchased ConnectLine and SoundGate3 accessories, publish a nationally circulated corrective notice, and establish a new Australian Consumer Law compliance program.
Have you purchased or received a hearing aid from one of these clinics? Are you a victim of this misconduct? Could you be in line for a refund?