Every year, Australian consumers make hundreds of thousands of complaints about faulty products, misleading advertising, scams and rip-offs.
But it's very hard to find out what these complaints are about. Regulators like the ACCC publish high-level statistics that say how many complaints are about retailing, vehicles or electrical goods, but if you want to know which car companies or electrical retailers are the main culprits, too bad.
But that situation has started to change in New South Wales.
In an Australian first, NSW Fair Trading has launched an online complaints register. Every month it will publish the information on businesses that have been the subject of 10 or more complaints in the previous month.
The first month's report included big-name brands like Harvey Norman, Foxtel and Flight Centre – not surprising for CHOICE, because we've had concerns about all of them.
It also included some lesser-known businesses that consumers need to know about. Android Enjoyed, for example, is an online smartphone retailer that had been the subject of a growing number of complaints to our CHOICE Help service. And lo and behold, it came in at number eight on the complaints league table. The next time somebody searches for the business online, hopefully they'll be warned off.
There were also some clear themes, with complaints about real estate agents really standing out.
LJ Hooker was at the top of the list with 31 complaints, mostly about tenancy matters. This is valuable information for both tenants and landlords – but LJ Hooker didn't think so.
They tried to argue that it was unfair to aggregate complaints from separate LJ Hooker agents because they're franchisees. (Translation: they're happy to take the upside of presenting as one big brand but none of the responsibility.)
They protested that they didn't even know about the 31 complaints until Fair Trading had shared the data. (Translation: they don't even bother to collect data on complaints across their network of agents.)
This first step by NSW Fair Trading provides just a brief glimpse into the deep trove of complaints data collected by Australian regulators. There's lots more that could be released – like data on injuries or deaths caused by products that are reported to the ACCC.
When we started hearing about Thermomix appliances causing serious burns in home kitchens, we had to launch our own investigation to find out how widespread the problem was. If we'd been able to do a quick search of an online database, we could have started warning consumers much earlier.