4WD hire company taken to court
A QUEENSLAND four-wheel-drive company linked to a Russian businessman has been taken to court by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission over claims it used unfair contract terms and engaged in "unconscionable conduct".
It comes after Clayfield MP Tim Nicholls told Queensland Parliament that Australian 4WD Hire was involved in an "scam" by charging customers for issues that were "no fault of the hirer".
The ACCC yesterday said it had taken action against Smart Corporation Pty Ltd, trading as Australian 4WD Hire, alleging it used unfair contract terms, engaged in unconscionable conduct, and made false or misleading representations in relation to insurance cover, in breach of the Australian Consumer Law (ACL).
"The ACCC alleges that, since 2016, Australian 4WD Hire's standard form contracts have included unfair terms that allowed it to charge customers for a range of driving behaviours which it claimed would cause excessive wear and tear or damage to its vehicles," an ACCC statement said.
"These driving behaviours included driving at night outside built-up areas, above the speed limit, or when visibility was poor. Australian 4WD Hire relied on GPS data to determine whether customers had engaged in these driving behaviours."
ACCC Chair Rod Sims said: "We consider these contract terms are unfair because they allow Australian 4WD Hire to charge customers for purported vehicle damage without having to prove any actual damage occurred."
The ACCC said it would also be alleging the company acted "unconscionably by enforcing these terms against certain consumers and withholding at least $500 of their security deposits for excessive vehicle wear and tear."
When disputes arose in relation to this the company threatened customers with further charges and referral to authorities, according to the ACCC.
The ACC also alleges that since 2014 Australian 4WD Hire has represented on its website that all rental vehicles would have the benefit of off-road insurance when half of its vehicles had insurance only for damage to third-party property.
The company is linked to Russian businessman Vitali Roesch who is the fleet manager.
Mr Roesch today told The Courier-Mail the company would defend itself in court.
"At the end of the day my position is we are going to wait and see what the court says," he said.
"They (the ACCC) can allege anything they want."
The ACCC also alleges the Australian 4WD Hire's contract also gave it the discretion to not lodge an insurance claim for single vehicle incidents and instead hold customers liable for all costs.
"The ACCC alleges that Australian 4WD Hire's Fleet Manager, Mr Vitali Roesch, and director, Ms Maryna Kosukhina were knowingly concerned in the alleged breaches of the Australian Consumer Law," a statement said.
The ACCC said it was seeking declarations, pecuniary penalties, compensation for customers, and banning orders against Mr Roesch and Ms Kosukhina.
Last year Clayfield MP Tim Nicholls told Queensland Parliament that Australian 4WD Hire "appears to be under the command and control" of Vitali Roesch, based on the Gold Coast, who at the time was an undischarged bankrupt. He has since been discharged.
He said he transferred his shareholdings and directorship to his wife Maryna Kosukhina.
He said the business was ripping off Queensland's car hire customers in an "scam", by charging them for issues that were "no fault of the hirer".
Mr Nicholls said there were 10 Magistrates Court proceedings commenced by the four-wheel-drive business against customers in the last two years.
Claims against customers included a vehicle being submerged in water, damage to an engine caused by contaminated fuel, failure of a radiator bracket and mechanical failure, according to a document tabled by Mr Nicholls.
Vitali Roesch denied all wrongdoing when contacted last year.
Mr Nicholls said many customers felt intimidated but Mr Roesch denied all of the claims and said there was no scam.
"When someone hires a four-wheel drive for the adventure of a lifetime they sign a lengthy standard form take-it-or-leave-it hire contract containing terms which, in my view, are a clear breach of Australian Consumer Law," Mr Nicholls told Parliament at the time.
"They pay a deposit of up to $5000, sometimes more, and they leave a credit card imprint as additional security. They collect the vehicle, usually from an agency at or near an airport, and head off on their adventure."
Mr Nicholls said "this is where it goes wrong".
"On many occasions the hire vehicle is not up to the job and breaks down through no fault of the hirer," he said in Parliament.
"Then Mr Roesch and the company start getting threatening and abusive.
"They start debiting the customer's credit card for repairs - in one case for an engine replacement, in others for mechanical rebuilds. There are other scams, of course.
"Time does not allow me to cover them but, Mr Speaker, despite reports to the Office of Fair Trading, nothing has been done to date."
In documents tabled by Mr Nicholls, it said the four-wheel-drive company had a contract with a clause that says it uses GPS tracking and that customers could be charged $500 for "driver behaviour damage" based on how the car was driven and how fast.
Mr Roesch appealed a decision to have his weapons licence revoked in 2013.
When he appealed the decision in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal, the Queensland Police Service said his criminal and traffic history were such that he was not a fit and proper person to hold a weapons licence.
It said he had two counts of assault occasioning bodily harm, with convictions not recorded.
The QCAT file said Mr Roesch himself had 59 demerit points since 2001, of which 14 were speeding and three were for unlicensed driving.
When contacted by The Courier-Mail last year Mr Roesch denied all of the claims and said there was "no scam".
"It is not true," he said.
"We not only welcome, we insist an investigation.
"We are in court because we are suing people, people are not suing us," he said.
"How can it be a scam if damages are about $17,000 in one specific case, we are already down $50,000-$60,000 in legals, what sort of scam is that? That's a really bad scam."
Mr Roesch said the company had 9000 happy customers over the last four-and-a-half years.
He said GPS tracking had assisted in reducing damages to vehicles and people were charged extra for speeding when they were "flogging the vehicles".
"We are allowing people to go to Cape York and the hardest and toughest tracks where no company in Australia will allow you to go," he said.
He said consumers could go to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) or the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in cases where they wanted to take action.
"The only way for us is to go to court," Mr Roesch said.
"I think for someone going out in parliament blabbing it out without checking the facts first it is actually not a nice thing, not an Australian thing to do."