An 18-month long investigation by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) has uncovered a "concerning trend" of complaints where consumers experiencing family violence were not always met by telcos' standard systems and processes.
The Meeting the needs of consumers impacted by family violence report detailed that telcos faced four key challenges in meeting the needs of family violence victims. These included being unable to: Recognise and respond to consumers experiencing family violence, understand what consumers needed to stay connected and safe, ensure appropriate account security processes, and offer the right financial assistance.
The investigation uncovered some of the consequences of telcos being unable to meet those needs, such as victims suffering more detriment and further financial hardship. The lack of support also resulted in unauthorised disclosure of personal information, which often led to further dangerous consequences.
"Our understanding and approach to the impact of phone and internet complaints in family violence continues to evolve. While the number of these complaints is relatively low, the detriment suffered is often disproportionately high," Ombudsman Judi Jones said.
The report suggested telcos could improve their services for consumers affected by family violence by working with family violence experts to develop training for staff, allowing staff to offer highly flexible payment arrangements, reviewing account securities, and listening to consumers about what they need to stay safe.
"This report makes recommendations for telcos wanting to improve their service to better meet the needs of their customers experiencing this vulnerability. I encourage providers to think deeply about changes they can make to best support consumers impacted by family violence," Jones said.
"We acknowledge the good work of family violence specialists, the telco industry and consumer advocates in this space. We are all on the same journey as many organisations in improving our understanding of the impacts of family violence. We will continue to monitor and evaluate our approach as our understanding evolves."
The findings were welcomed by the Communications Alliance, which published a guide on how to assist consumers experiencing domestic and family violence in 2018.
"Family violence impacts far too many Australians, and all industries and individuals have a role to play to help keep people safe. Telecommunications services are vital to keeping people connected, and there are steps telcos can take to support consumers," Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton said.
Stanton noted the Communications Alliance is currently working on updating and expanding its 2018 guide, saying in a statement it would take into consideration the findings by the TIO as part of the process.
"Many telcos have gone above and beyond developing staff training and innovative processes to support impacted consumers and keep them safe, and we are working across the industry to ensure all telcos are enabled to put the right systems, processes, and training in place to help consumers," Stanton said.
If you need support because you or someone you know is experiencing family violence call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) for 24/7 support and referrals.
The number of complaints to the TIO is now at its highest level for five quarters.
The TIO had expected an uptick in complaints regarding financial hardship during the pandemic, but these types of complaints actually dropped off because of industry and government financial support.
Complaints received between March and June 2020 were directly related to the pandemic.
Complaints shot to 27.6 complaints per 10,000 services during the July to September quarter.