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Better consumer protection rules are needed for telco consumers suffering from family violence

By Cynthia Gebert, Ombudsman

The National Plan to end gender-based violence has a clear call to action for businesses and the corporate sector to play a part in responding to family violence. The plan states providers of financial services, telecommunications, energy and other utilities can play a key role in addressing financial abuse and family violence by designing better products, services, systems, and processes for consumers.

The role of the telco sector is to ensure telco consumers who are experiencing family violence are treated with respect, care, and urgency when they have problems with their phone or internet products and services.

In 2020, we released our systemic investigation report into the impacts of family violence on telco problems. This investigation, alongside work undertaken by the industry peak body Communications Alliance, led to collaboration with stakeholders to improve responses to family violence in the telco sector.

The telco industry has continued to make positive contributions. Earlier this year Communications Alliance published an updated guideline aimed at helping telcos understand how they can assist consumers experiencing family violence. Communications Alliance also announced its intention to include family violence protections in a revised Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code (TCP Code), which is currently under review.

These actions are steps in the right direction, but they are not the end-goal. We at the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman want mandatory, enforceable, government-made rules to ensure that phone and internet consumers experiencing family violence are getting the protections they deserve.

The current guideline is not mandatory or enforceable. This guideline is not a standard applied to all businesses that sell phone or internet services. This means it cannot protect all consumers affected by family violence. We are still seeing people experiencing family violence fall through the gaps in the consumer protection framework.

What are we seeing in our complaints?

Each year, my office receives complaints from consumers whose phone or internet problem has been exacerbated or caused by their experience of family violence.

In the last financial year, we received around 300 complaints from people experiencing family violence, with almost two thirds of those complaints coming from mobile customers.

We see complaints where telcos do not recognise the key signs that a consumer is affected by family violence. In some cases, telcos did not pick up on signs of family violence, even when the consumer might have referred generally to “violence”, “abuse”, “trouble at home”, or problems with an ex-partner. Some consumers told us frontline telco staff did not believe them or asked offensive or insensitive questions.

We have received complaints where telcos insist a consumer experiencing family violence contact or communicate with the perpetrator of family violence as a way to deal with a phone or internet problem. For example, one person was asked by her telco to bring her abusive ex-partner into a store to change her number to her new account.

We’ve also had complaints about telcos disconnecting the services of a consumer experiencing family violence – sometimes at the request of the account holder who is the perpetrator of the violence – despite access to those services being critical to the consumer staying safe.

The consequences of disconnection can be severe. When consumers do not have access to a phone or internet service, they can be left without a way to call for help, contact emergency services, or communicate with their support networks for specialist support.

Telcos have a responsibility to keep a consumer’s information safe. There are serious consequences for consumers experiencing family violence if the telco discloses personal information by accident or without consent. We hear about situations where a victim-survivor's address was disclosed by their telco to a perpetrator, leaving the consumer in a dangerous position or requiring them to move house.

Telcos need to recognise the intricacies and unique circumstances of people affected by family violence, to reduce the likelihood of their phone and internet problems contributing to an unsafe or threatening situation.

Mandatory rules could help by including enforceable requirements for all frontline staff and their managers to receive ongoing training. This would ensure they are equipped to recognise the signs and impacts of family violence and respond appropriately.

Additionally, the rules could direct telcos to create a binding family violence policy that clearly sets out how the telco will identify and assist consumers experiencing family violence.

The impacts of financial hardship and financial abuse

We have observed a strong relationship between family violence and consumers experiencing payment difficulties.

Family violence can cause or intensify a consumer's financial vulnerability. In some complaints we have received, the telco refused to accept family violence as a factor contributing to the consumer’s payment difficulties.

Financial hardship can happen because the consumer has suffered economic abuse, or because the impact of family violence can reduce a consumer’s overall financial capacity.

Consumers can also suffer financial hardship because the impact of family violence has left the consumer with limited funds, short or long-term financial instability, new and existing debt, or poor credit history. These factors all have an adverse effect on a consumer’s financial capacity.

Sometimes, a consumers finances may be controlled by the perpetrator of family violence, and this can restrict their ability to pay for a service.

The negative consequences of economic abuse can affect a consumer for years. When a perpetrator coerces a consumer into signing up for products and services they cannot afford, the negative impact of that debt can follow a consumer on their credit history.

We have received complaints from consumers who said when they could not afford to continue paying for a service or debt, their telco sold the debt to a debt collection agency and listed a default on their credit file, without considering how family violence may have affected their ability to pay.

Telcos need to ensure that their payment arrangements are flexible and that the unique circumstances of a consumer experiencing family violence be taken into consideration.

Enforceable protections should include the requirement for family violence to be a recognised and likely cause of payment difficulties. Additionally, the impact of any service suspension or disconnection should be properly considered before resorting to cancelling services. This could help to ensure that in cases involving family violence, the automatic suspension or disconnection of services is prevented, meaning a consumer’s safety is put first.

What needs to change?

The current protections for consumers experiencing family violence are simply not good enough.

It is vital that the expectations on telcos responding to consumers experiencing family violence be written in mandatory, government-made regulation.

Telcos can choose to follow the industry-made guideline when dealing with consumers who are experiencing family violence. However, compliance with this guideline is not mandatory and the regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, cannot investigate breaches where providers don’t follow it.

This is a failing of our system.

The lack of mandatory obligations on telcos leads to uncertainty for customers experiencing family violence in how they will be treated, because how they are treated is based on what protections their telco has chosen to implement. In some cases, a telco may not have any tailored approaches for consumers experiencing family violence.

Having uniform and mandatory protections for consumers experiencing family violence across the telco sector would ensure people experiencing family violence are entitled to the help they need, irrespective of who their telco is. It would also assist telcos by giving them certainty about the appropriate way to help customers experiencing family violence.

Taking cues from the consumer protections in the energy sector and drawing on some of the features suggested by Communications Alliance in its guideline, mandatory protections could include:

  • enforceable training requirements for all frontline staff
  • the requirement for telcos to create a binding family violence policy
  • the requirement for family violence to be a recognised likely cause of payment difficulties, and for the impact of any service suspension or disconnection to be properly considered.

I acknowledge we are on the same journey as many organisations in improving our understanding of the impacts of family violence and how we capture this when consumers contact us for help.

We have been working with family violence experts on how we can best meet the needs of consumers. We are improving our own processes and will continue to monitor and evaluate our approach as it evolves. Community understanding of family violence is still evolving, as is the telco industry’s response.

It’s important we all continue to examine processes and systems to ensure people experiencing family violence are getting the help with telco problems that they need.

And it’s essential that the necessary protections for consumers experiencing family violence be written in mandatory, government-made regulation.

Until then, the telco sector cannot fully participate in meaningful change to fulfil its role in preventing and reducing the impact of family violence.