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We’ve become used to checking our purchases using comparison sites like iSelect and Compare the Market, the one with the meerkats. But just how honest are those product comparisons?

Leading consumer advocacy body Choice has compared the comparison sites – beating them at their own game.

Of the four comparison sites – Compare the Market, iSelect, Canstar and Finder – Choice found that Compare the Markets has the “most transparent disclosure of commission rates.’’

But so-called ‘free’ comparison sites can earn “substantial fees per sale” for the insurers, Choice warned. These fees often make up a sizeable chunk of the total insurance premium you pay.

Some comparison sites only compare a fraction of the market while other sites are owned by the insurance companies they are supposedly comparing.

When you buy insurance on the phone or online through websites like iSelect and Compare the Market, the insurance company pays an upfront commission to the site, usually a percentage of the premium. The comparison site may also receive trailing commissions, an additional kickback.

Other sites like Canstar and Finder work on ‘cost per click’ model. When you click through their product website, the provider pays the site a referral fee.

Telephone consultants play an important role in the commission-driven sites such as iSelect and Compare the Market. Phone consultants are incentivised by performance – the higher the premiums sold, the more they get paid.

“So if you’re on the phone to a call centre and you’re tossing up between a $500 policy and a $700 policy, bear in mind the phone consultant gets a higher bonus if you go with the $700 policy,’’ Choice said.

Here’s what Choice found out about the four comparison sites.

iSelect

iSelect claims it is the most visited private health insurance comparison site. It is paid a commission by the insurance company that owns the product you purchase. But its call centre operators are detached from fee arrangements so commissions do not influence recommendations.

Canstar

Canstar provides a comparison of most personal insurance products using its star ratings system. It receives fees for advertising on its site and may also receive payment for referrals to provider sites.

Finder

Finder compares health, life, travel, car and home insurance. It doesn’t operate a call centre and do not force a user to hand over contact details before showing pricing.

Compare the Market

Compare the Market is best known for “compare the meerkat” television campaign.  It compares health, car, home, life and travel insurance.

“Compare the Market has the most transparent disclosure of commission rates of the sites we assessed,’’ said Choice.