James Frost, Misa Han and Alex Gluyas
Baptist pastor Grant Stewart was forced to cancel his disabled son’s debit card after a call centre operator from Freedom Insurance’s boiler room sold him a package of worthless insurance.
Mr Stewart said he decided to cancel the card of his son, who was born with Down syndrome, after learning there was little he could do to stop the company from taking regular payments from his son after he was sold the “Freedom plan” over the phone.
“I contacted the bank. They said you can’t stop the payments; all that you can do is cancel the card,” Mr Stewart told the banking royal commission on Tuesday.
It was the first time Mr Stewart’s son had any problem with his card. It would take Mr Stewart some time to cancel the policy. Freedom told him he needed to get his son on the line to say the sentence: “I wish to terminate the policy”.
In tapes played to the hearing, Mr Stewart’s son has difficulty saying the words. Mr Stewart said he remained affected by the experience and believed that some residual harm was done.
“He was quite distressed about it. He believed he had done something wrong and was embarrassed,” Mr Stewart said.
The sale took place during an excruciating 18-minute phone call with an unscrupulous sales operative with a history of over-the-top and aggressive selling. Excerpts played to the hearing reveal limited interaction from the customer with one word answers such as “yes”, “no” and “family”.
In a follow-up call his son was asked whether he thought $10,000 was enough cover or whether he should be covered for $15,000.
His son opts for $10,000 but struggles to answer the questions. Asked if he wants to pay fortnightly or monthly he takes along pause before opting for “fortnightly”. When he is asked for his BSB number he says “I don’t know”.
Mr Stewart said after listening to the calls, which took him more than two years to obtain, it would have been apparent to anyone his son was struggling to understand what was going on.
The unnamed call centre operator is no longer at the firm.
The call centre operator was likely to be chasing any number of incentives organised by the Freedom call centre team, which included booze cruises, motor scooters and trips to Bali for top sales agents.
Cash prizes, ringing bells, coffee carts, doughnuts and alcohol were also doled out to staff to keep them selling or coming back to the office. The complex matrix of incentives and penalties could see good sales agents more than triple their regular salary.
Internal discussions between Freedom’s management team about the agent were also tendered when they decided not to renew his work visa.
One describes him as a liability while the other, having listened to a tape of the call where he sells to Mr Stewart’s son, responds with: “I feel so sorry for the poor customer throughout the call.”
Mr Stewart’s believes his son is experiencing residual effects from the ordeal. He said his confidence and self-esteem had been affected and he had been traumatised by the ordeal.
“He became quite apprehensive about answering his phone. Even though we put his number on the Do Not Call Register he continued to get calls from I don’t know who.”