ACM takes action against online commercial intermediaries for government services
The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) has compelled the company behind websites such as mijnverklaring.nl and mijnkentekenbewijs.nl to stop its misleading practices vis-à-vis consumers. This company is the owner of various commercial websites offering consumers intermediary services in their interactions with different government agencies. These sites forward, for a fee, consumers to those government agencies’ websites that offer citizen services (for example a certificate of conduct or a vehicle registration certificate).
Going forward, the company must inform consumers clearly about its services and fees. The company cannot ask its consumers to submit a positive review in exchange for a partial refund of the fees. Finally, the company must inform harmed consumers properly about the cooling-off period, allowing them to exercise their right of withdrawal. If the company does not comply with these orders, it will have to pay penalty payments up to a maximum of 150,000 euros.
Edwin van Houten, Director of ACM’s Consumer Department, adds: “Consumers are misled because they believe that they just filed an official application with the government agency offering the service they seek. By clicking on online ads, they end up on the intermediary website, and pay for a service that is cheaper if they interact with the government agency directly. This form of consumer deception must stop.”
What is the problem?
Empiru Investments Holding B.V. and its subsidiaries Statempire B.V. and Mijn Verklaring B.V. are the companies behind websites such as mijnverklaring.nl, mijnurgentie.nl, mijnkentekenbewijs.nl, socialepremie.nl, and mijnonlineloket.nl. The company stopped operating the website mijnkentekenbewijs.nl after ACM had launched its investigation. By clicking on online ads, consumers arrive at the application form on the website of the commercial intermediary.
These websites make money by forwarding consumers to the website of the government agency offering the service those consumers seek. They wrongfully claim that, through them, the application process will be expedited or that they have a higher rate of success. As soon as the consumer has filled out the form and has paid the fee, the intermediary forwards the application to the government agency in question. However, the consumer will still have to pay that government agency for the actual application. Consumers that subsequently wish to withdraw the application made through the intermediary are then told that withdrawals are not possible under the general terms and conditions of the intermediary.
Finally, the intermediary asks its customers to leave a positive review. In exchange for such positive reviews, the company promises to pay back half of the fee. As such, the reviews left on Google and Trustpilot cannot be regarded as truthful and reliable. Consumers that read these reviews can therefore be misled.
What has ACM ordered the company to do?
ACM has ordered the company to stop its misleading practices vis-à-vis consumers regarding its identity and activities. By imposing an order subject to periodic penalty payments of 15,000 euros per week with a maximum of 150,000 euros, ACM compels the company to do the following, as of December 21, 2020:
- To inform consumers clearly about the company’s services and the costs;
- To inform consumers clearly about its identity (name, address, etc.) and contact details;
- To comply with the rules that protect consumers, such as the right of withdrawal (the cooling-off period).
- To refund consumers that contact the company because they had not been properly informed about the cooling-off period;
- To stop directing the content and tenor of reviews.
ACM assumes that, with the right information, consumers are able to make well-informed decisions. If it turns out that correct and complete information does not solve the problem, ACM will then favor stricter measures for curbing these types of misleading intermediary websites.