ACCC & AER annual report 2016-17

Analysis of performance: Empower consumers

Deliverable 2.5: Empower consumers by increasing their awareness of their rights under the Australian Consumer Law

The ACCC’s educative function is central to our role in protecting the interests and safety of consumers, because awareness and information are the tools that empower people to understand and exercise their rights as consumers. Our educational and publicity campaigns help consumers to make smart choices even in complex or difficult markets.

Deliverable 2.5 applies beyond what is generally understood to be the scope of consumer issues. Whenever we take on new responsibilities, identify new issues or focus on new priorities, our activities generally progress, in order, through:

  • engaging with the relevant industry
  • developing guidance materials on rights and responsibilities
  • educating consumers and/or small business
  • looking out for potential breaches of the relevant regulations
  • investigating and taking action on breaches.

These activities may overlap.

To empower consumers by increasing their awareness of their rights, we:

  • develop and distribute information materials targeted to particular groups
  • publicise our enforcement actions
  • conduct public education campaigns on specific issues
  • operate the ACCC contact centre (the Infocentre) to respond directly to enquiries and reports on consumer issues and to gather information about current trends to inform our educational work
  • gather and analyse intelligence on current trends and emerging issues relating to consumer rights.

Distributing consumer information

In 2016–17 we distributed targeted and general information through our website and Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels to help consumers and small business. For example:

  • we used the new, improved Product Safety Australia website which incorporates the old Recalls website to provide a user-friendly, single-entry point to national, state and territory product safety and recalls information
  • we published voluntary recalls through social media channels to extend their reach to affected consumers
  • we identified popular culture events (for example, Mother’s Day and International Star Wars Day) to use as opportunities to engage with our audience on social media and promote product safety messages
  • we engaged with influencers and other third partieson campaigns such as members of the Consumer Consultative Committee and Australasian Consumer Fraud Taskforce.

Publicising enforcement activities

We seek to maximise the effect of ACCC court cases and other enforcement actions by publicising them in accordance with the ACCC’s Media Code of Conduct. In many instances, we conduct consumer education and business compliance initiatives alongside enforcement activities, each reinforcing the message of the other. The penalties and reputational damage that follow a court judgment are not only powerful deterrents to other traders but also highlight to consumers how they can use their rights.

In 2016–17 we publicised enforcement actions by:

  • issuing media releases for enforcement interventions
  • organising regular media appearances for the ACCC Chairperson and Commissioners in which they offered consumer tips and advice as well as discussing the actions more broadly
  • engaging on social media
  • using actions we have taken as examples in speeches, at conferences and at other events
  • sharing our results via our email lists
  • preparing content for industry on our court outcomes.

Campaigns

We conduct campaigns, including in our broader priority areas, to educate and empower consumers on specific issues, and we put on events to promote and discuss consumer issues with a range of stakeholders.

For examples of our targeted campaigns in 2016–17, see:

  • ‘Scam disruption’ on page 88
  • ‘Working with partners’ on page 104
  • ‘Consumers with disability’ on page 78.

As well as conducting issue-based campaigns, we use our involvement in various consumer forums to raise awareness about particular aspects of consumer law. In 2016–17 these opportunities included the annual National Consumer Congress, the Ruby Hutchison Memorial Lecture, and meetings of the ACCC Consumer Consultative Committee.

National Consumer Congress

The 2017 National Consumer Congress was held in Melbourne on 15 March. This event was themed ‘Consumer protection in a changing world’. It was attended by about 185 delegates from consumer organisations, government, academia and the legal sector. Panels and keynote speakers discussed a number of issues, including the availability and use of consumer data, the publishing of complaints data, reforms relating to financial services, housing rights for tenants and reforms introducing competition in human services.

This high-profile annual event is a valuable opportunity for us to generate interest in and raise awareness of issues relating to consumer empowerment.

Ruby Hutchison Memorial Lecture

The Ruby Hutchison Memorial Lecture is held annually and is co-hosted by the ACCC and CHOICE. Ruby Hutchison was the founder of the Australian Consumers’ Association, which is now known as CHOICE. The lecture was held on 14 March 2017 and was attended by approximately 160 guests. The 2017 lecture was presented by Fairfax’s senior economics journalist Jessica Irvine. Titled ‘Consumer rights in the new economy’, Ms Irvine’s lecture covered what can be done to protect people during some of the most vulnerable periods in their lives—particularly in relation to aged care, tenancy and childcare services.

Bannerman Competition Lecture

The ACCC and the Business Law section of the Law Council of Australia hosted the annual Bannerman Competition Lecture in Melbourne on 16 February 2017.

The Bannerman lecture is named in honour of Ronald Bannerman AO, the first and only Commissioner of Trade Practices and the inaugural chairman of the ACCC’s forerunner, the Trade Practices Commission. The lecture provides an annual forum for an eminent speaker to reflect on competition and consumer law in Australia and to deliver new ideas and perspectives, which the community can debate.

The 2017 Bannerman Competition Lecture was delivered by the Honourable Stephen Gageler AC, Justice of the High Court of Australia, and was titled Chapter Four—trade and commerce and the Australian Constitution. Justice Gageler successfully defended the Commonwealth in the 2012 tobacco plain packaging case, and this year he was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia.

Consumer Consultative Committee

The Consumer Consultative Committee brings consumer engagement and empowerment issues to our attention and provides a forum for us to inform, discuss issues and seek feedback on the effectiveness of our consumer empowerment activities. See details under ‘Working with partners’ (Deliverable 2.2) on page 104.

Infocentre

The ACCC Infocentre is the initial contact point for enquiries and reports about competition, consumer and fair trading issues. These contacts are received by telephone, by letter and through forms on our websites.

The majority of contacts are:

  • reports about scams
  • reports made by consumers seeking information about consumer guarantees
  • reports about business conduct that may breach the Act.

Infocentre officers record information they receive from businesses and consumers in the ACCC database. This data is used across the ACCC for investigation, analysis and reporting purposes.

The Infocentre manages the process to escalate reports for investigation and possible enforcement action. All reports are assessed against the law and the ACCC Compliance and Enforcement Policy and, where appropriate, they are escalated for further assessment or investigation. The Compliance and Enforcement Policy supports Infocentre officers in informing customers of current and enduring priorities.

Where contacts are beyond the jurisdiction of the ACCC or cannot be individually addressed, Infocentre officers refer customers to appropriate services or agencies and educate the consumer or business on the options available to them.

For reports and enquiries, the emphasis is on consumer rights, business obligations and the role of the ACCC.

Responding to enquiries and reports

Our contact statistics for 2016–17 are:

  • 264 462 contacts served by telephone and received in writing
  • 55 103 web form responses sent (or otherwise completed)
  • 750 letter responses made
  • 84 074 calls answered.

Our service level statistics for 2016–17 are:

  • 25 per cent of calls answered within the service level
  • 93 per cent of written responses sent within 15 working days.

This represents a significant improvement on last year’s results for written responses following some positive change in 2016–17. A new service level objective will soon be recommended for telephone calls to ensure we have a less aspirational goal in place but can still provide consumers and small businesses with timely guidance and responses to reports.

Escalation of investigations

The reports we receive may go through a series of increasingly intensive investigations.

An initial investigation is the first stage of a detailed assessment. It may result in escalation to an in-depth investigation. Alternatively, the matter may be resolved administratively or no further action may be taken.

The most serious matters may become in-depth investigations. Depending on the seriousness of the conduct, we may use our coercive investigative powers and resolve the matter by using court enforceable undertakings or infringement notices or by initiating legal action.

We analyse the information contained in our database to establish trends, identify issues for further inquiry and develop compliance responses.

Table 3.55: Actions

Category

2015–16

2016–17

Contacts received (phone, email and letters)

340 042

405 382

Contacts recorded in the database

207 090

234 913

Under-assessments commenced

590

485

Initial investigations commenced

427

259

In-depth investigations commenced

167

79

Litigation

19*

24*

* Litigation commenced in period (i.e. new proceedings)

Table 3.56: Small business and franchising contacts

Category

2015–16

2016–17

About a small business matter

15 071

13 375

About a franchise matter

931

607

About an online trader or e-commerce

6 126

12 994

Table 3.57: Top 10 industries, excluding scams, for complaints and enquiries

Industry

2016–17

Non-store retailing

2101

Other personal services

1808

Electrical, electronic and gas appliance retailing

1635

Car retailing

1395

Clothing retailing

478

Other administrative services

442

Furniture retailing

442

Other telecommunications services

422

Internet search providers and web search portals

368

Pharmaceutical, cosmetic and toiletry goods retailing

332

Table 3.58: Top categories of consumer and competition conduct for complaints and enquiries

Conduct

2016–17

Fair trading and consumer protection, including ACL

18—Misleading or deceptive conduct

19 072

54—Guarantee as to acceptable quality

18 123

36—Wrongly accepting payment

5 276

60—Guarantee as to due care and skill

3 676

29(1)(i)—False representation price

2 700

29(1)(a)—False representations goods—standard, quality, value, grade, composition, style,etc.

1 818

56–57—Guarantee relating to the supply of goods by description, sample or demonstration

1 711

29(1)(b)—False representations re: services—standard, quality, value or grade

1 617

40—Assertion of right to payment for unsolicited goods or services

1 389

55B(1)—Payment surcharges must not be excessive

1 323

122–128—Recall of consumer goods

887

55—Guarantee as to fitness for any disclosed purpose etc.

850

Effective competition and informed markets, Parts IV and IVB of the Act

Codes

551

Exclusive dealing

388

Misuse of market power

374

Table 3.59: Geographical location of contacts recorded in the national database

Location

ACL

Scams

Consumer protection

Restrictive trade practices

Industry codes

Other

 

2016–17

2016–17

2015–16

2016–17

2015–16

2016–17

2015–16

2016–17

2015–16

2016–17

NSW

17 303

47 475

54 094

64 778

473

429

218

118

5 587

3 348

Qld

14 137

36 003

42 564

50 140

438

297

217

121

4 608

2 462

Vic

28 632

31 946

40 375

60 578

396

360

204

145

3 974

2 764

WA

5 564

14 248

20 075

19 812

171

137

94

92

1 607

1 072

SA

4 340

13 593

15 030

17 933

126

95

59

35

1 406

825

ACT

1 910

4 668

5 798

6 578

80

62

14

14

586

376

Tas

1 316

3 566

4 376

4 882

41

33

15

3

333

218

NT

561

1 622

1 637

2 183

13

15

3

1

170

102

Overseas or not specified

783

5 608

4 301

6 391

41

12

12

2

535

294

Intelligence

The ACCC continually invests in intelligence gathering and analysis to inform strategic enforcement and compliance priorities.

We continue to perform trend analysis on complaints to identify new issues and threats. Regular analysis not only provides a safety net for complaints assessment but also enhances our intelligence and industry knowledge and helps us identify new priority areas.

In 2016–17 our intelligence activities included:

  • gathering information received through the Infocentre from businesses and consumers and analysing it as outlined above under ‘Infocentre’
  • working with state and territory consumer agencies to further develop all ACL regulators’ intelligence capabilities and enhance cooperation, including through the Compliance and Dispute Resolution Advisory Committee
  • engaging with our intelligence counterparts overseas to inform our understanding of emerging consumer and competition issues that are likely to affect Australia.

For reporting on our international engagement, see page 108.