Complaints to the ACCC surge 39%

Repair and refund complaints rose to 29,000 last year.

The number of complaints lodged by people who claim they were denied their consumer rights by businesses surged to 29,000 in 2017, representing a yearly increase of 39% in complaints made to the consumer watchdog.

The notable increase has been described as "concerning" by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which spent much of 2017 exercising its powers against some of the largest companies operating in complaint-laden industries.

Half of the 29,000 complaints were made against businesses selling automotive vehicles, whitegood appliances and consumer electronics. All of these complaints had to do with customers claiming they were denied their after-sales rights.

Consumers have the right to a repair, replacement or refund under Australian Consumer Law, says Dr Michael Schaper, acting chair of the ACCC, even in some cases when the manufacturer warranty has elapsed.

"Consumer guarantee rights are separate to any warranty that comes with a product," he says. "For example, if you buy a new TV that breaks down after the manufacturer's warranty expires, you may still be entitled to a ... repair, replacement or refund."

Retail stores cannot turn a customer with a faulty product away. "If you return a faulty product to the retailer you purchased it from, they must provide you with a remedy and cannot direct you to the manufacturer instead," says Dr Schaper.

The rise in complaints – to 29,000 in 2017, from 21,000 in 2016 – comes as the ACCC is targeting misconduct in automotive and technology industries.

It has commenced Federal Court proceedings against Apple, Ford and Optus, and has agreed to enforceable undertakings from Holden, Telstra, TPG and Belkin, to name a few of its actions in 2017.

But it has also had to respond reactively to lacklustre conduct across industries, sometimes with little notice.

The ACCC had to investigate the issue of Takata airbags – widely considered to be the largest car recall in history – after it was found most car makers had failed to offer safe replacements quickly. A mandatory recall has since been proposed by the ACCC to coordinate the efforts of the 14 manufacturers trying to recall the 2.7 million cars affected in Australia.

The ACCC is also dealing with the backlash over Australia's $49 billion national broadband network by investing $7 million in a monitoring service, launching an inquiry into the quality of the wholesale network and pursuing the retail service providers that may be breaching consumer rights.

What to do if you've bought a faulty product

Customers struggling to have their guaranteed rights enforced should drop the words "Australian Consumer Law" in their dealing with businesses, says Dr Schaper. He also recommends they complete the ACCC's online form if they are denied their protected rights.

The type of redress available to customers depends on whether a product has what the law defines as a major or a minor fault. Customers can choose from a refund, repair or replacement in the case of major failures. In the case of minor faults, the business gets to choose whether a customer receives a refund, repair or replacement.

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