Big rise in Optus complaints but more made about Telstra, report finds

Optus's data breach exposed the private details of over a third of Australia's population.

Optus's data breach exposed the private details of over a third of Australia's population. Photo: TND

Australians struggling to pay their mobile phone bills are increasingly complaining about telcos failing their financial hardship obligations amid the cost-of-living crisis, according to new figures.

Data published by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) on Wednesday revealed a 16.5 decline in the overall number of consumer gripes with telcos over the past financial year.

But complaints about financial hardship bucked that trend, rising 1.2 per cent as Australians reported telcos were failing to offer flexible payment methods or specialised help and support.

Optus also copped a 29.5 per cent increase in complaints over the 12 months to June 2023, showing how consumer anger has fomented over a massive hack of its systems last year that saw the personal information of almost 10 million people stolen by an anonymous criminal.

What’s interesting is that despite Optus copping a spike in complaints it still wasn’t the most complained about telco over the past financial year.

That title goes to Telstra, which drew 26,837 complaints in 2022-23, down 35.7 per cent on the prior year.

Fall in complaints

Telecommunications industry ombudsman Cynthia Gebert welcomed the fall in overall gripes from consumers, but said telcos needed to ensure financial hardship support is available to Australians struggling to pay their mobile phone bills.

“Telcos need to make sure they are offering flexible payment methods and specialised help and support for people who are struggling to pay,” Gebert said, in the annual report released on Wednesday.

“Phone and internet services are essential for banking, shopping, accessing health and government services, as well as staying in touch with family and friends.

“It’s critical that people have access to these services, and consumers can easily get help when things go wrong.”

Struggle to pay bills

The ombudsman said on Wednesday that the cost-of-living crisis is hitting some telco customers hard and that providers aren’t always doing enough to provide support to struggling families.

In one case, a customer wasn’t offered what the ombudsman described as a “reasonable payment arrangement” when they became sick and were unable to work, sparking a big debt.

The customer was given an extension on their bill, but after this period expired the telco failed to offer a payment arrangement, requiring the ombudsman to intervene until a deal was reached.

In total, 1634 complaints were made about financial hardship or repayment arrangements in the 2022-23 financial year.

The most complained about issue was “no or delayed action” by a telco provider, which saw 37,735 complaints over the year, up 5.8 per cent.

Gripes about service equipment and fees were the second most complained about issue, with 21,062 complaints, though this fell 9.1 per cent.

Customers slam Optus

About 20,323 complaints were made against Optus in the past year, a 29.5 per cent rise on last year amid ongoing anger about the theft of personal information from millions of customers.

There were so many complaints that the ombudsman ended up introducing a new automated process to get through the mountain of consumer issues.

It also met with the telco on a “regular basis” to alert them to the complaints and prioritise reports from customers who were affected by the hack.

“The [Optus] breach had a ripple effect across the industry. In our office, we saw an increase in complaints relating to contracts, transfers and privacy,” the ombudsman said.

“Those complaints peaked between October and December 2022, prompting us to develop tactics to manage the unexpected demand.”

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