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Shonky studios targetted the vulnerable

Expressions Sessions, a studio portrait business which breached Consumer Law by by engaging in thoroughly unethical sales tactics, has reportedly complied with court orders to refund all eligible customers – even though it doesn’t appear all victims have yet received a refund.

From 2012 to 2014, Expression Sessions engaged in unfair sales tactics directed toward vulnerable people, including indigenous Australians.

The Federal Court ordered Expression Sessions pay a $1.1 million penalty in December 2016, and write a letter to inform all eligible customers they will receive a refund.

‘In many cases, Expression Sessions’ customers were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander or were financially disadvantaged. Pressuring vulnerable or disadvantaged consumers into buying products they cannot afford is clearly unacceptable,’ ACCC Deputy Chair, Delia Rickard, said in 2016. ‘Businesses have a responsibility to be upfront with consumers and clearly explain the total price of the goods and services they are offering.’

Inside Imaging‘s predecessor, ProCounter, reported the story in 2016 exclusively, and it came to the attention of many Expression Sessions’ victims via Google seraches. In  fact, desperate customers claiming to have been ripped off continue to leave comments, mostly begging us to help them get their money or photos back from Expressions!

It’s also clear many Expression Sessions victims are still hurting years after being ripped off. Having exhausted other available options, they are venting their frustration in the article comments:
‘So how would I get my refund totally ripped us off no letter at all, my daughter is now 6yrs old and got photos done when she was 6months+ old totally conned my partner for crap photos that we didn’t even receive so angry need a response asap!!’ wrote Michael Morrison.

‘I was ripped off $900 im a single mother and would like my money back, how do i get a refund?’ wrote Natalie.

‘I would like to know how I can either get my grandson’s photos (taken in May 2015, he is now 2yrs old) or a full refund ($1033)……..Hoping I can find out who I should contact to assist?’ wrote Kylie Ross

‘SERIOUSLY WTTFFF !! My daughter is now 3 turning 5 and I only wanted the pics they took and the lady who worked from this company had put down I wanted the rest of pics worth $3000 I WANT MY MONEY BACK!! Cos I still have no photos!!!! And I refused too pay it!! It’s been ongoing and this is from 2013!!! How the heck am I supposed to call?’ wrote Mary-Amiah Maqisa.

Here’s some background from the court ruling:

Expressions Sessions company principal Jesse Baravykas.

Expression Sessions (Lifestyle Photographers Pty Ltd) set up mobile ‘pop-up’ studios, where they enticed victims to have their children participate in a photo shoot.

Many customers were particularly vulnerable as they did not have English as their first language and/or low levels of literacy and numeracy skills.

They misled customers into believing they didn’t intend to sell prints, and pricing wasn’t made available during the shoot. Later, at a viewing, the victim would be shown 20 to 30 prints. The court found this was designed to ‘create an emotional attachment to the prints’, ‘create a sense of obligation to purchase’, and ‘make the customer susceptible to undue pressure.’

The salesperson would rush the customer to quickly make a decision about buying products, and threaten to destroy the prints if a purchase was not made.

The salesperson would only offer the photographic prints as part of a bundled package, failing to disclose the minimum cost of $75 per print, or the cheapest option, or the manner in which the packages were priced.

They also withheld information about the final price, and often quoted different prices to confuse the customer.

There was no cooling off period in the contract.

Click here to read the final judgement paper.

Following the court ruling, Lifestyle Photographers Pty Ltd, the parent company, sold the Expression Sessions business to a related company, Easy Payments Pty Ltd.

Lifestyle then entered voluntary administration.

The ACCC subsequently joined Easy Payments to the proceedings. The Federal Court made orders against both companies.

An ACCC spokesperson told Inside Imaging that ‘Easy Payments has filed an affidavit with the Court evidencing its compliance with the Court orders’.

The spokesperson added there are options available for customers who purchased photographic packages from Expression Sessions during 2012-14:
– Consumers who made payments prior to 29 December 2015 to Lifestyle Photographers may wish to lodge a proof of debt with the liquidator here.

-Consumers who made payments on or after 29 December 2015 should contact Easy Payments:
Ms Zelda Baravykas
Proper Officer – Easy Payments Pty Ltd
Registered Office: Quantum Corporate Bank
Level 1, Unit 62/5 Gladstone Road
Castle Hill NSW 2154
PO Box 5304 Turramurra NSW 2074

Interestingly, the ACCC spokesperson also highlighted another studio portrait business taking advantage of indigenous Australians! Tiny Tots entered into approximately 1400 unsolicited consumer agreements from 2011 to 2014, mainly with customers living in remote locations.

Customers were misled to believe they had no cooling off rights when they did, and were also not informed about how to terminate an agreement or provided contact details for the company.

‘It is particularly concerning to the ACCC that a significant number of Tiny Tot’s customers were from remote Indigenous communities. The right to cancel unsolicited contracts during a cooling off period is a fundamental protection for consumers under the Australian Consumer Law,’ ACCC NT regional director, Derek Farrell, said back in 2014. ‘Companies who engage in unsolicited selling in remote areas should be crystal clear that the law applies to them and will be enforced if it is breached.’

The ACCC enforced Tiny Tots to refund up to $50,000 for unsolicited customer sales.

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