A company that Australian media has described as operating an “alleged scam” has close links to a business in Northern Ireland, the BBC has learned.
Viewble Media Pty Ltd has been accused of leaving Australian businesses almost $31m AUS (£16.9m) in debt.
A BBC investigation has discovered it has close links to a company in County Down.
Viewble Media UK Ltd was operating across the UK from Groomsport.
BBC News NI has been contacted by businesses from across Northern Ireland, Yorkshire and London that claim to have lost money through an advertising deal.
As part of the deal, a shop owner buys a screen from Viewble at a cost of £299 a month for three years, paying a total sum of almost £11,000.
A second associated company, the Shoppers Network UK Ltd, then rents the screen for advertising, paying the shop owner £299 a month for three years.
As part of the deal, the shop would get its own advert shown on the screen, and get its ad shown in neighbouring businesses.
It is referred to as a cost neutral deal.
‘Your heart sinks’
The shop owners, though, found that the payments from the second company stopped coming.
And they did not realise that if anything went wrong, they would be stuck in the contract and would have to make repayments.
The business owners had signed finance deals, which meant they would owe the £11,000, and the repayments from the advertising were not guaranteed.
Avril Forsythe, who runs the Goldmine Jewellers in Omagh, thought it sounded like a good deal at first.
“It was like there is no risk in this,” she said.
“Now we’ve found out that when there is a default in the payments, that we are still liable and that we can’t get out of the contract.”
Andrew Bustard, of Castlederg-based Top Gear Motors, had a screen installed in his car show room and is now also out of pocket.
“I think everyone knows when your heart sinks and you realise that you’ve signed up to something that is not what it’s supposed to be or what you were promised,” he said.
Both business owners stopped getting repayments in December, but are contractually committed to paying what they owe for the next three years.
BBC News NI found that Viewble Media UK Ltd has close links to the Australian business, which, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, has been involved in this “alleged scam”.
The Shoppers Network UK Ltd has some of the same company directors as Viewble and was supposed to make the repayments.
But it went under, meaning the payments to rent the screens stopped.
Australia’s business ombudsman has launched an investigation after receiving more than 1,000 complaints about Viewble Media Pty Ltd and The Shoppers Network.
It said it is the biggest investigation it has ever dealt with.
Australian authorities say both businesses are now in liquidation and this has had a direct impact on the UK business.
Once problems started in Australia, businesses in the UK also stopped getting their payments.
David Reid, whom Australian media describes as a director of the business in Australia, is also listed as a director of Viewble Media UK and The Shoppers Network in the UK.
Ricci Aiken from Northern Ireland is also listed as one of the directors of the UK business.
The BBC understands that Viewble Media UK is jointly owned by Mr Aiken, who has 25% of the shares, and an Australian firm, which owns the remaining 75% of shares.
The BBC has also seen an advert for a job as the general manager of Viewble Media UK.
The role was based in Bangor, with a salary of £50,000.
The job advertisement indicated that the staff member would be expected to report directly to Viewble Media’s chief executive in Australia.
The company also employed freelance sales agents across the UK.
According to Companies House, both firms are still active in the UK, but clients stopped receiving payments from The Shoppers Network at the end of last year.
Mr Aiken told the BBC that the UK company has ceased trading, and that a new firm is taking on the clients. He said any issue with payments should be taken up with it.
Mr Aiken did not address concerns that the operation could be a scam or claims that the deals were mis-sold to businesses.
David Reid said that a new media partner had been appointed in the UK and it has not had any complaints.
He also added that the Australian business is in liquidation, and said any questions should be directed to the liquidator.
Paul Uppal, the Small Business Commissioner, said his office has been working with authorities in Australia and has also been dealing directly with businesses.
“They’ve told us just how draconian the contracts are and that they’ve ended up being signed into and how they now feel that they are trapped because of the situation,” he said.
“So we’re seeing first-hand the real stress that this can cause for a small business. It’s just not the financial impact but it’s also the mental impact that can cause on a family business.”
Business owners who believe they have been mis-sold finance deals should contact the Financial Ombudsman or the Small Business Commissioner.
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