By Claire Reilly

Complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) increased by almost 20 per cent over the past year, according to the 2011 TIO Annual Report released today. Of these complaints, more than half were in relation to mobile phone services, with the number of complaints about Vodafone tripling compared to the previous year.

The TIO received 197,682 complaints over the year, with more than 112,000 issues relating to mobile phone services and over 32,000 specifically referring to Vodafone. The most common mobile phone complaint was in relation to service faults – including poor mobile coverage and drop-outs in reception – an area of concern that rose 180 per cent year on year.

“The record number of complaints made to the TIO is disappointing,” said Ombudsman Simon Cohen. “Customers who have complained to us have been frustrated not only by mobile telephone problems, but also by deficient customer service and complaint handling.”

“There has also been an alarming increase in the number of consumers with high debts because they could not monitor their usage adequately, the majority using mobile phones,” Mr Cohen said.

“It is in everyone’s interest to make sure there are effective and easy-to-use monitoring tools available to consumers to track their own usage. Service providers should also monitor customers’ usage and notify them if they are accruing unexpectedly high bills to avoid people not being able to pay their bills and facing credit and debt collection problems as a result,” he said.

On a more positive note, complaints about landline, internet and mobile premium services were down for the 2010-11 year. Cohen noted that the decline in complaints about mobile premium services (which fell by almost 50 per cent) could be attributed to “stronger government and industry regulation”.

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In other telecommunications news, the Federal Court has found that advertisements produced by the internet service provider TPG were “false and misleading”, according to the ACCC.

TPG promoted its $29.99 Unlimited ADSL2+ plan through TV, newspaper, radio and online advertisements. However, Justice Murphy of the Federal Court found that the advertisements failed to indicate the plan could incur additional costs, because it was only available when bundled with a TPG landline at a cost of $30 per month. Earlier advertisements also failed to disclose the upfront set-up fee of $129.95 and the requisite $20 home phone deposit.

In his judgment, Justice Murphy noted that it was “an unfair trade practice to require consumers to find their way through to the truth past advertising stratagems which have the effect of misleading or being likely to mislead them”.

In response to the judgement, ACCC chairman Rod Sims said “Telecommunications companies must include clear and accurate information for consumers in their advertisements and this should provide a further warning to the telecommunications industry that they must get their advertisements right”.