Ombudsmen are non-government intermediaries who can jump in on your behalf if you have a bona fide grievance with a goods or services provider that you can't resolve yourself.
They're funded by the industries they oversee, and their services are free for consumers. In effect, ombudsmen are paid to deal with consumer complaints that the service provider can't resolve to the customer's satisfaction.
The expectation is that an ombudsman can persuade the wrongdoer to do the right thing. But do they have any real leverage?
You need to try to settle the issue before involving the ombudsman.
Some consumers have told CHOICE their dealings with ombudsman services have left them less than satisfied. In the case of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO), a conspiracy theorist might say that's because its board of directors is made up of former or current telco industry managers and executives.
Indeed, ombudsman services are set up as a kind of outsourced self-regulation. However, it's more likely that consumer frustration stems from having a poor understanding of what an ombudsman can and can't do. It's important to remember, for instance, that ombudsmen can't provide legal advice or represent you in court, and they can only deal with matters that fall within their terms of reference.
More and more, though, merely threatening to contact an ombudsman is enough to spur service providers into fixing your problem
You'll also need to have tried to settle the issue before they become involved. More and more, though, merely threatening to contact an ombudsman is enough to spur service providers into fixing your problem.
The TIO and AFCA (the Australian Financial Complaints Authority) look after two market sectors that generate many consumer complaints (telecommunications and finance), but both services are making progress towards realising one of their central objectives – to persuade telcos and financial services providers to improve their own dispute resolution processes.
Phone number: 1800 931 678
Funded by financial firms. All Australian financial firms are required to pay a registration fee to become a member of AFCA. They also have to pay individual complaint fees when AFCA receives a complaint against them.
Call them for disputes about:
- credit cards or loans
- banking payments and transactions
- investments and financial advice
Don't call them about:
- level of a fee, premium, charge or interest rate unless it's incorrectly applied or inadequately disclosed
- methods used to assess credit risk or the amount of security required for a loan
- investment performance unless there is an issue of nondisclosure or misinformation.
A financial firm has 30 days (45 days for a superannuation provider) to resolve a dispute brought by the AFCA with you directly. They say more than half of complaints lodged with AFCA resolve at this stage.
For most issues, consumers have six years from when they became aware of the issue, to when it must be reported to AFCA. Or two years from the end of any internal dispute resolution process with the provider.
As a first step toward resolution, the AFCA makes a preliminary assessment which includes how they think it should be resolved. Both parties have 30 days to agree to it, and if not, it goes to a determination.
If you accept AFCA's determination, the financial firm must provide the remedy stated.
Most disputes with financial services providers are resolved between the customer and the relevant bank, credit provider, insurance company or other financial services provider, with the AFCA refereeing from the sidelines. However, should the AFCA step in and make an official recommendation or determination in your favour, it can require a financial service provider to:
- pay you a sum of money
- waive, vary the terms or release security for a debt
- repay, waive or vary a fee including interest rates on a loan
- vary the terms of a credit contract in cases of financial hardship
- honour an insurance policy claim.
Read more about the process on AFCA's website.
Phone number: 1800 06 20 58
Funded by telcos. All businesses that provide or re-sell telecommunications services to consumers or small businesses are legally required to join the TIO. Providers are charged by the TIO per complaint if it investigates
Call them for disputes about:
- internet services.
Don't call them about:
- equipment supplied by a telco
- cabling beyond the network termination point except to the first telephone
- commercial activity by telcos outside of connection services
- tariffs and rates.
Customers have two years from the time they become aware of the issue to make a complaint, though the timeframe may be extended to six years depending on the reason for the delay.
The TIO will initially refer the matter back to their member and usually allow 10 working days for the telco to resolve the dispute before it becomes formally involved. If the matter cannot be resolved at the initial stage, TIO will investigate and propose a recommended outcome, which each party has 10 business days to agree upon.
If either party rejects this outcome, they will form a preliminary view, either immediately, or after further investigation. If this is rejected, it will be referred to a decision maker who can make a decision that is binding.
Read more about the process on the TIO website.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.