Sheng* couldn’t understand why the Youi sales representative kept him on the phone for an hour, peppering him with questions, and insisting on getting his bank account details.
All he wanted was an insurance quote, one that turned out to be way more expensive than his current policy. Accordingly, he told them thanks, but no thanks – twice.
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An investigation by Fairfax Media can reveal that insurance giant Youi has been billing people who provided credit card information in the course of obtaining a quote. Potentially thousands of Australians have been billed monthly without their consent.
So he really couldn’t understand why they took $780 from his account, and then refused to give it back to him.
After a long fight with Youi he got his money back. But he is one of potentially thousands of people who have had money taken from their accounts by insurance giant Youi without authorisation or notice.
Five whistleblowers say the company culture encouraged sales staff to defraud potential customers on a large scale by billing them for policies they never signed up for.
The whistleblowers also say customers are having claims rejected due to a cult-like corporate culture that drives staff to falsify insurance documents to make sales. Youi’s customers are left paying for policies that don’t actually cover them.
“I started in sales, and I witnessed managers changing data, changing the colour of cars, changing insurance history,” says one whistleblower.
“The whole thing makes me sick. It’s all a big cover-up.”
These tactics have helped make Youi one of Australia’s fastest-growing insurers. The company’s total revenue has grown from $71 million in 2011 to $654 million in 2015, IBISWorld reports show
A six-month Fairfax investigation has prompted ASIC launching an investigation into the company, which has been forced to apologise to New Zealand customers for the same behaviour there. In fact, the staff defrauding customers across the Tasman were trained in the tactics by Youi’s staff in Australia.
The whistleblowers also claim Australia’s call centre actually made many of the illegal phone sales made in NZ.
Youi’s NZ arm announced this month it would plead guilty to misconduct charges filed by the New Zealand Commerce Commission. The charges are linked to behaviour identical to that alleged by the whistleblowers – including selling policies when only quotes were asked for.
“Youi acknowledges the validity of customer complaints relating to instances where policies were sold, when only quotes were requested and the failure to cancel insurance policies after being notified,” the NZ branch of the company said in a statement.
Youi’s senior management issued an unreserved public apology after the charges were laid.
NZ journalist Diana Clement, who broke the story, said the Australian situation was “a ticking time bomb”.
“There are all these people out there who have policies that don’t cover what they expect,” Clement said.
Since the NZ revelations, the atmosphere inside the company is highly paranoid, with staff regularly receiving notes from management warning them about the penalties of speaking to the media.
Despite that, the five whistleblowers want to talk.
“It is the most diseased company I have ever worked for,” said one.
“It’s all fabrication. It’s illegal to do. They don’t want the sales staff to do it, but they do want you to do it, if you know what I mean.”
The criminal charges in New Zealand appear to have had little impact inside the company, a whistleblower said.
“It’s only 15 instances, that’s nothing [they say]. They are expecting to just pay it off and it’ll go away as they have done in the past.”
A Youi spokesman called the allegations “vexatious, lacking substantiation and without foundation”, and said the company was committed to “conducting business with the highest standards of personal and corporate integrity”. The spokesman pointed to feedback on Youi’s website which he said indicated a 92 per cent satisfaction rate.
HOW THE SCAM WORKS
Youi’s sales staff are pushed to get credit card details in every phone call, the whistleblowers say.
Unlike other insurers you cannot get an insurance quote from Youi online – it must be through a phone interview. This is a deliberate tactic to allow Youi’s calls centre to pressure customers, whistleblowers say.
On the phone, customers are often told they can’t be provided with a quote until credit card numbers are handed over.
Once the credit card details are secured, some of Youi’s sales representatives put them through as a sale, no matter what the customer asked for.
“They would say they needed to get credit card details to [email] a quote. Then they would activate the policy without telling the client.”
Even if a customer tells the sales representative they don’t want the policy, their credit card details will often be billed.
“If I wanted a sale, what I would say is OK, that’s your quote, just to hold the price, if you give me your credit card details we can put it in the system,” says another whistleblower.
Says a third: “Quite often a client would ring within a cooling off period and want to cancel that policy – and it would not be done.”
Do you know more? Have you had problems with Youi? Email the journalist: firstname.lastname@example.org
Fairfax has spoken to several customers who say Youi took money from them without authorisation.
But hundreds more outraged customers have taken to the insurer’s social media page.
Their claims are all different, but the allegation is the same: Youi stole my money.
Rachel Blackburn says her experience with Youi “was probably one of the worst I’ve ever had in my life”.
Ms Blackburn had home and contents insurance with the Commonwealth Bank. She called Youi for a quote to check if her current policy was excessive.
“The process took about an hour. At the end of it she said it’s our policy to take down bank details, we won’t use it if you don’t sign up. I said to her ‘let’s be clear about this, I’m not going ahead with anything, all I want is a quote’.”
A little while after hanging up the phone, Ms Blackburn received an email. It welcomed her to Youi and included details about the policy she’d just been signed up for.
She replied to the email saying she just wanted a quote, not a policy. Youi never responded. Like many people spoken to for this story, Ms Blackburn had to go public, posting a complaint on Youi’s Facebook page before the company cancelled her policy.
Youi’s Australian and New Zealand arms are owned by South African insurer OUTsurance. OUTsurance’s 2015 annual report said Youi had written almost 1 million policies in Australia and has 1750 employees.
Falsifying the policy
Getting a car insurance quote from Youi can take more than an hour on the phone. Customers’ answers are fed into software that generates a quote based on the assessed risk level.
But that quote is often more expensive than a competitors. So sales staff, the whistleblowers say, use every tactic they can to lower the premium and get the sale – including falsifying the policy.
The most common trick is car colour. Youi charges more to insure red or black cars, because they are statistically more likely to be in an accident. To lower the premium, sales staff just put the colour in incorrectly
“There were people constantly putting in the colour white when they are clearly being told their car is black,” says one former staff member who worked in sales for two years.
Youi was able to hide these fabrications by issuing vague policy statements with only limited detail to new customers, whistleblowers say. This policy has since changed.
Sometimes, says a whistleblower, a claim is rejected because of errors in the policy – because the sales representative put in the wrong details, either accidentally or deliberately.
“How many claims have there been where we have rejected a claim because they’ve got no cover and we haven’t looked into it any further? How many claims are there where if we looked into it we’d find a staff error?
“I think we’re doing it at least once or twice a week. It’s all a big cover-up.”
Youi’s management has instructed staff not to look too deeply at policies, or check for what are known as “data entry errors”, because they know there are so many, the whistleblower says.
“If the client has no cover, we are not investigating the sales call. Deliver the news – they don’t have the cover.”
“How many people say ‘I really thought I took that cover, oh well’?”
Vildon Foo discovered his insurance policy had been rewritten when he called to renew it.
He was told his investment property in Wyndham Vale, Victoria, sits in a “inundated – risk of flood” zone, meaning Youi would not cover him. Why then, he asked, had he been paying his premiums for the last year?
After checking his policy Mr Foo discovered Youi had entered the wrong address, meaning they were able to offer him insurance, but if he made a claim they could have cause to dispute it.
Mr Foo later discovered the address Youi had been insuring did not exist.
“How is it the company was able to give me cover in the first place?” Mr Foo said.
The cult of Youi
Why are Youi’s sales staff engaged in such unethical behaviour? Every whistleblower pointed to the same culprit: the sales team’s commission system.
Youi tells its sales staff they can earn huge commissions. But commissions are not reliant on the number of sales; rather, staff get bonuses based on how many more sales they make than their workmates.
A computer determines how many inbound customers are routed to each sales team member. The computer ensures people who sell more policies get more calls, and thus commissions.
Sales representatives are literally competing against each other for commissions from a central pool. One person’s success is another person’s failure. This breeds both a toxic, high-stress environment – and encourages unethical sales tactics.
Not all sales staff are doing the wrong thing, but a large proportion are. The problem for staff who want to do the right thing, whistleblowers say, is they lose commissions to those prepared to do the wrong thing. That puts pressure on everyone to act unethically.
“They want you to get the sale no matter what. They want you to brush past questions,” says one whistleblower.
One whistleblower worked with a staff member who complained to senior management about her manager rewriting insurance policies. “She was offered to move teams – and the manager was left there.”
“[A manager] asked me if I’d got a formal warning yet. He said if I had not, I should keep doing it,” one whistleblower says.
“It’s brainwashing, it’s like a cult. They give you little treats, and treat you like animals. Then they drag you into rooms and want to know why you did not sell that policy.”
*Sheng asked Fairfax not to reveal his last name.