Mr ANDERSON: My question is to the Minister for Fair Trading. What is the latest information on consumer protection in New South Wales and email scams targeting New South Wales families?
Mr AQUILINA: The Department of Fair Trading uses a range of enforcement actions against dishonest traders. Prosecution is one of the strongest weapons. In the past year the Department of Fair Trading has been most vigilant in this area. It has been successful in prosecuting 152 offenders, with penalties totalling $630,439. The prosecutions involved 706 breaches of consumer protection legislation. Most of the prosecutions arose from the motor vehicle, real estate, building and pawnbroking industries. Unlicensed motor dealing continues to be a problem, but new legislation coming into force on 1 July will increase penalties to a maximum of $110,000 and boost the department's ability to stamp out this illegal practice.
Common problems in the motor vehicle industry include the misrepresentation of vehicles and odometer interference. Typical offences involving real estate agents include trust account deficiencies and improper bookkeeping. In the pawnbroking industry the failure to properly log items is the most common offence. This is serious because the broker's register is a protection for consumers against the sale of stolen property. Prosecutions in the building industry normally arise from unlicensed builders or from builders who fail to properly carry out their duties. When a builder is convicted of an offence, it is recorded on a public register kept by the Department of Fair Trading. Anyone can check that register by calling the department on 13 32 20.
Last month the Licensing Court sent a clear message to the real estate industry that the misuse of trust money by agents would not be tolerated. The court convicted Crystal Real Estate in Newtown on multiple counts of misuse of trust funds totalling $178,036, permanently disqualified the company from holding a licence, and ordered it to pay fines and costs totalling $105,716. Prosecution is only one avenue the Department of Fair Trading uses to enforce legislation and protect consumers. Other methods include suspensions or cancellation of a trading licence, issuing breach notices and formal warnings. The department also has a proven track record of obtaining injunctions from the Supreme Court to stop traders engaging in misleading and deceptive conduct or otherwise contravening consumer laws. In the rare cases in which a trader breaches Supreme Court undertakings the department initiates contempt of court proceedings against the trader. In one such case—I am sure the honourable member for Lismore would be interested in this—Taree financier Timothy Aaron O'Keefe was gaoled for three months in December when he failed to appear for a contempt of court case against him.
The department has also been vigilant in warning and protecting families about scams that increasingly come through the mail and the Internet. Members frequently complain to me about these scams. The department's approach has been to educate the public about the dangers of responding to these scams and get-rich-quick offers. Today I have issued a warning to North Coast residents to ignore the extravagant claims contained in a computerised gambling scheme that is being heavily promoted in the region. In the past week hundreds of Coffs Harbour householders have received a glossy brochure in their letterboxes promoting what is described as a foolproof horseracing betting system.
Mr Scully: Is this from the local member?
Mr AQUILINA: They tell me he is burning hot up there. The system promises to deliver fat profits week after week. The program is claimed to be the product of years of painstaking work by mathematicians and computer engineers—obviously not the product of a public education system. This scheme is the latest in a long line of similar offers that have left a number of New South Wales consumers sadder, wiser and thousands of dollars poorer. The Department of Fair Trading is continuing its investigations into the gambling scheme and its Queensland-based promoters. I urge North Coast residents to throw these offers into the bin, where they belong. I particularly ask the honourable member for Lismore to take note.