Updated: 30 March 2021
  • COVID-19 generated 15% of financial complaints in the year since March 2020 
  • Scam-related complaints jumped 23% in the second half of calendar 2020 
  • However, home contents and car insurance complaints fell as people stayed at home. 
  • Note: COVID-19 data March 3 to February 28; other data half year or calendar year. 

The Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) is seeing a sharp rise in consumer complaints about scams, after receiving more than 11,000 complaints related to COVID-19 in the year leading up to the anniversary of the pandemic’s declaration.  

The COVID-19 complaint numbers were released today along with AFCA’s latest half-year statistics, which showed a 23% jump in the monthly average of complaints about unauthorised transactions and scams in the six months to December 31. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11 last year (March 12 AEDT). AFCA had begun collecting data on COVID-19 complaints a week earlier. AFCA’s data shows that between March 3 last year and February 28 this year there were 11,482 COVID-related complaints about financial products or services. That was 15% – or one in seven – of all complaints over that March-February period. 

“While not seeking to downplay the challenges people have faced, and continue to face, this was fewer complaints than we thought might arise from the pandemic,” AFCA’s Chief Operating Officer Justin Untersteiner said. “Banks were quick to respond, providing emergency support as they handled unprecedented numbers of requests for repayment deferrals. Superannuation funds worked with us to resolve consumer concerns about early access to super funds. Government financial support measures also played a vital role.” 

However, as some of the government support is wound back it’s important that consumers and financial service providers work together to resolve issues quickly as they emerge in the coming months, Mr. Untersteiner said. 

The bulk of COVID-related complaints (65%) came through in the first six months from March last year, as consumers and firms came to grips with its impacts. There was then a trend downwards as financial firms fine-tuned their responses, activities like travel reduced and the economy steadied.  

In the separate statistics for the second half of 2020, the monthly average for complaints in relation to financial difficulty fell about 35% and complaints involving the major banks were down. 

“As the government support introduced during COVID starts to wind down, we are on alert for issues – particularly around financial difficulty – emerging in the coming months. It’s vital that consumers and financial service providers work together to resolve issues quickly. If you find yourself in trouble, I strongly urge you to contact your financial service provider to try to sort it out to avoid a problem becoming bigger,” Mr. Untersteiner said. The JobKeeper wage subsidy phases out on March 28. 

One year on, AFCA has been able to resolve nearly 90% of the COVID-related complaints it received – in the vast majority of cases by helping individual complainants and financial firms reach agreement.  

Among COVID-associated complaints, travel insurance was the most complained about product type, with 3,516 complaints across a year of the pandemic, though the rate fell sharply as travel reduced. (For more detail on COVID-related complaints, see here).  

On the other hand, AFCA’s half-yearly data shows falls in the monthly averages for complaints about motor vehicle insurance and home contents insurance – reflecting less road traffic and police reports of reduced theft because people were at home more.  

However, there was a 23% jump in the monthly average for complaints related to unauthorised transactions and financial scams in the second half of 2020. “Our sense is that scammers stepped up their activity to take advantage of people spending more time at home and feeling financially vulnerable,” Mr. Untersteiner said.  

It’s not just the volume of complaints about scams that’s increasing but also the sums involved. Some complaints involved scammed amounts topping $1 million. “Scams were growing before COVID-19 but the pandemic has accelerated this trend,” Mr. Untersteiner said. “People should check in with family and friends – especially those who may be more vulnerable – and discuss the dangers.”  

AFCA has information for consumers at www.afca.org.au/scams. There is also advice at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Scamwatch site at www.scamwatch.gov.au

Overall, in 2020 AFCA received 77,739 complaints, up 5 per cent on the number in 2019. Resolved disputes resulted in compensation and refunds totalling $294 million going to consumers and small businesses.  

Other outcomes AFCA achieved for consumers included fee waivers, debt forgiveness and changes to financial product design. AFCA also undertook investigations into a range of systemic issues in 2020, resulting in remediation payments to consumers totalling $187.3 million. 

 

Complaints State by State

Calendar 2020 Complaints

% of national total

COVID-19 Complaints* % of COVID-19 national total

NSW

25167 

33% 

3572 33%

VIC

22118 

29% 

3369 31%

QLD

14430 

19%

1910 18%

WA

7101 

9%

1028 9%

SA

4248 

6%

651 6%
ACT 1255  2% 161 1%
TAS 975  1% 158 1%
NT 532  1% 64 1%

Source: AFCA   

*COVID-19 complaint data from 3 March 2020 to 28 February 2021  

—ends—

About AFCA

  • The Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) is a non-government ombudsman service providing free, fair and independent help with financial disputes. 
  • It is a one-stop-shop for consumers and small businesses who have a dispute with their financial firm, in areas such as banking, credit, insurance, advice, investments and super. 
  • Where an agreement cannot be reached between parties, AFCA can issue decisions that are binding on financial firms. 
  • AFCA has searchable public data on financial complaints available at data.afca.org.au

Media enquiries: media@afca.org.au or 0466 929 659.

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