The chief operating officer of insurance group Freedom was forced to apologise at the financial services royal commission for using high-pressure telesales techniques to sell accidental injury cover to a 26-year-old man with Down syndrome.
The man’s father, Baptist minister Grant Stewart, listened on Tuesday as the commission played recordings of sales calls to his son, who is on a disability support pension and has trouble with speech, literacy and numeracy.
The recordings demonstrated how Mr Stewart’s son struggled to understand what was going on, giving one word answers and leaving long pauses in the conversation.
At one point, the salesperson offered the man the choice of accidental death or injury cover, and asked whether he would prefer $10,000 or $15,000 for final expenses.
He asked if he could have both, before opting for $10,000. Asked if he wanted to pay fortnightly or monthly, the man opted – after a long pause – for fortnightly. But he could not provide his BSB number when asked.
“I found it a very frustrating experience and was angry that our son had to go through that. He has an intellectual disability and they had no right to sign him up for a policy,” Mr Stewart told the commission.
Mr Stewart learned his son had been sold $110,000 worth of insurance after a letter detailing the policies arrived in 2016. He made a phone call to demand the deal be undone but, despite assurances, it was not.
Eventually he emailed Freedom, saying “I wish to lodge an official complaint … Taking advantage of a person with an obvious intellectual disability for the purposes of luring them into buying one of your policies cannot be condoned”.
There was no response from the company. Eventually Mr Stewart and his son called Freedom again and were able to get the cover withdrawn.
A few weeks before the royal commission hearings, Freedom’s chief operating officer, Craig Orton, wrote to Mr Stewart apologising for the company’s action. The apology was read in the commission on Tuesday.
Freedom made other moves ahead of the commission, including scrapping direct phone selling of accidental death insurance. When counsel assisting Rowena Orr asked Mr Orton why there was no written notice of that decision in the company’s files, he said it was unimportant and had not been documented.
She expressed surprise, saying phone sales were an important part of Freedom’s business model.
Mr Orton admitted the company used “downgrading” tactics to sell accidental death insurance. That is where clients who want life insurance but don’t qualify are instead offered cheaper accidental death cover.
ASIC has been highly critical of the practice in recent announcements.