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Telco complaints and family violence - change won't happen while rules remain optional

Ombudsman Cynthia Gebert addressed the April meeting of the 2023 Economic Abuse Reference Group. Ms Gebert spoke about the TIO’s approach to complaints involving family violence and reflected on the limitations of current telco regulation in this space.

Presenter: Cynthia Gebert, Ombudsman

Event: April 2023 meeting of the Economic Abuse Reference Group

Date and time: Tuesday 4th April 2023, 11.00am

Duration: 15 mins

Media enquiries: TIO Media Team on 0437 548 540 or via email

Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, culture and community.

I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging, and I acknowledge sovereignty has never been ceded. This always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

I’m Cynthia Gebert, Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, and I’ve been associated with the EARG for many years now.

But that association was from a different life, when I was the Ombudsman for energy and water in Victoria.   

Today, my new role, which is not so new anymore, is focussed on phone and internet services and the telco industry, and I have to be honest – it’s like taking a step back in time.

I took for granted the maturity of the energy and water industry, and the great gains we made as a sector in consumer protections. 

By contrast, stepping into the telco landscape has been like falling to the base of the mountain. 

Industry-owned codes and standards are the norm, and regulation has a long way to go before it can provide a genuine safety net for vulnerable people. 

There is a lot of opportunity for change. 

So what does the top of the mountain look like? 

Telecommunications is recognised as an essential service and is regulated accordingly. 

The top of  the mountain is consumer protections being decided by government and regulators via direct regulation, and this includes protections for victim survivors. 

It was achieved in the energy and water sectors. 

It can be done in telco sector.

The debate about bringing direct regulation into the telco space is ongoing and may take time to be fully realised. 

In the meantime, the key industry code, the Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code, is about to be reviewed, and this is an opportunity to bring in mandatory protections for victim survivors as soon as possible. 

The telecommunications sector has done good work in developing guidance for telcos so they can assist their consumers who are experiencing family violence. 

However, compliance with Guidelines is not mandatory, and breaches cannot be investigated or enforced by the regulator. 

Before I explore what this change would look like, and what role the TIO can play in bringing about this change, let’s look at the role of the TIO and how we can help.

Role of TIO

We rely on technology more than ever before to stay connected, be informed, and to do business, so it’s critical that consumers are able to rely on the services they sign up for. 

Technology is changing incredibly quickly, and the way we engage with our mobile devices and the internet has evolved. We rely on phone and internet technology not only for our lifestyles, but to conduct business, to study, and to stay socially connected.

There is a huge amount of choice in the phone and internet market with new products and services being launched every week by lots of providers – not everyone realises there are over 1500 phone and internet providers.

When there is lots of change, there tends to be complaints.  

Amongst all this change and disruption, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman has strived to make ourselves visible and accessible, so people and businesses who need us are easily able to find us and use our services. 

This is in line with our purpose of providing a fair, independent and accessible dispute resolution service for consumers and the telecommunications industry – and a service that complies with the benchmarks for industry-based customer dispute resolution.

Our purpose remains clear: we are here to help consumers and their telco find a clear way forward with their unresolved complaints. 

The TIO’s scope of service is simple:

  • We deal with individual complaints and systemic issues
  • Promote the fair resolution of complaints
  • Provide information and analysis to stakeholders

So how can we help you and you clients? If you’ve tried to fix the issue with the telco first, and haven’t been able to, we can help with:

Contracts: Did your client agree to something they didn’t get?

Bills: Does your client think their bill is wrong or are they having trouble paying it?

Debt collection: Are you being asked to pay a debt that is not yours? Or that you cannot afford?

Faults and service difficulties: Does your client’s phone or internet service work as promised? Were they connected to the service when expected?

And disconnections: Has their phone or internet been cut off or have they received a disconnection notice?

In light of this, I’d like to talk about the TIO’s approach to complaints involving family violence and what we see as some of the challenges and solutions for our service and the telcos.

Approach of TIO to complaints involving family violence

Phone and internet problems can cause extensive harm for consumers impacted by family violence. Consumers who are experiencing family violence have unique needs. 

When these consumers have a phone or internet problem, these problems can cause or exacerbate other problems related to family violence.

The TIO goes above and beyond to consider the family violence circumstances and what is fair and reasonable to expect from the telco, considering all the facts. 

Our approach to complaint handling where family violence may be a factor has been developed over a long time in consultation with experts. 

Our publicly available guidance tells consumers what remedies may be available when a telco complaint could involve financial hardship, economic abuse, privacy or safety issues, or technology-facilitated abuse. 

Our position as an Ombudsman scheme means we can give a different degree of weight to the facts, but we also have to consider regulatory obligations, where they exist. 

When considering what’s fair and reasonable in complaints where family violence is a factor, all we can currently consider is what’s in the industry guidelines.

These guidelines are a series of optional steps telcos can take, and this is hugely problematic because this limits what we can expect or ask of telcos when handling complaints. 

Family violence and systemic investigations

Alongside handling complaints on a case-by-case basis, we have also looked at family violence in the telco space through the lens of systemic issues.  

First, we ran individual systemic investigations where we saw problems with the way particular telcos were responding to family violence issues. 

Second, we published a broader systemic report on phone and internet complaints impacted by family violence. 

Our individual systemic investigations have revealed providers’ standard systems and processes do not always meet the needs of consumers who, because of the impact of family violence, need a higher level of care.

Telcos need to take extra care when interacting with these consumers so they do not add to the harm these consumers are already experiencing.

The impact of phone or internet problems can disproportionately affect consumers experiencing family violence and cause extensive harm. 

And failing to respond appropriately to a consumer’s unique circumstances gave rise to additional privacy, safety, and financial harms in complaints we handled.

In August 2020, our Systemic Investigations Team began a broader, industry-wide investigation to better understand the issues in complaints we receive involving family violence.

We examined the recurring issues seen by our complaint handling teams when working with telcos and consumers to resolve their complaints, and we found four key challenges telcos face in meeting the needs of consumers impacted by family violence:

  1. Consumers can face barriers to getting help if their provider has inadequate processes for identifying and responding to consumers experiencing family violence.
  2. Consumers experiencing family violence need to stay connected to phone and internet services. Losing access to services can have extreme consequences for these consumers. Their safety may be compromised, and they may lose the ability to communicate with their support network and other specialist services.
  3. Weaknesses in account security processes can lead to privacy risks.
  4. An inflexible approach to providing the right financial help can contribute to financial hardship. Offering the right financial assistance can be the difference in ensuring a consumer remains connected to the services they need. 

Our systemic investigation process involves working with providers to help them fix these challenges and stop them from occurring, but the fact remains that under the current regime of industry guidelines, there is nothing that compels telcos to make the improvements we know would help. 

This is a big limitation in the current regulation of telcos when it comes to resolving complaints about family violence.

This is why we need key essential consumer protections to be decided via direct regulation.

Making family violence protections mandatory, rather than an optional business practice as they largely are now, benefits not just those experiencing family violence but also telcos and wider community.  

Telcos would have certainty about the best way to operate to ensure proportionate support of their customers, rather than being left to assume the solutions they invest in will work. 

And only telcos who can adopt family violence protection practices that support and promote fair and consistent access would be able to participate in the market. 

Right now, if you want to supply phone and internet services you don’t even need to register with the regulator – there are very few barriers to entry.  

For consumers and support workers, making family violence protections mandatory is about knowing what to expect because the standards telcos are held to are the same for all in the industry. 

It’s also about knowing what help you can access regardless of what telco you are dealing with.

And in making family violence protections mandatory, this is a clear statement that the Government sees telecommunications as essential to all consumers, including those affected by family violence.

I’d like to finish by touching on the TIO’s approach to transfer of phone numbers to a victim survivor where a perpetrator owns the account.

TIO’s approach to transfer of phone numbers to a victim survivor where perpetrator owns the account 

The rules around phone number ownership seek to balance fraud prevention and stop people losing access to their phone number.

However, the way the rules are currently setup prohibits an easy solution where the perpetrator owns the victim survivor’s number. 

Unlike most essential service sectors, the telco sector does not permit joint accounts. In telco, there can only be one account holder, and the account holder has all primary rights that relate to the service, including the right to retain a phone number. 

In cases impacted by family violence, there are no rules that require a telco to transfer a phone number away from the perpetrator. 

Telcos can choose to set up their terms and conditions to allow the victim survivor to keep their phone number. The steps they would have to take are:

  1. include a clause in their standard contract that enables termination and disassociation of a mobile number from an account where the end user has been affected by family violence perpetrated by the account holder
  2. where the end user says they want to keep the number, get the end user to establish an ongoing association with the number (for example, through a One Time Pin or knowledge of the account and call history)
  3. setup a new account with the end user and attach the number to it
  4. decide how to approach communicating the change to the former account holder, the perpetrator. 

It is not reasonable to leave it to telcos to decide if they want to amend their terms and conditions to offer victim survivors this option. If it can be done – it should be done, and all telcos should be required to do it.

Doing this strikes the right balance between prioritising fraud protections, established rights of use for a phone number, and protecting those affected by family violence. 

We know that some telcos understand this. For example, Telstra has been finding ways to help consumers who find themselves in this situation since as early as 2019. 

However, this is not the standard across the industry, and won’t be as long as the rules remain optional.

Thank you.