20% of the nearly 10,000 complaints we received somehow related to the pandemic, including many of the 1225 complaints which fell in a new category of travel.

Disruption to travel and events had many consumers and businesses wondering what their rights and obligations were in the situation. The complaints covered themes such as:

  • difficulty obtaining refunds of deposits and payments made upfront for accommodation, flights, activities, cruises etc
  • offers of credits rather than refunds for COVID-19-related cancellations
  • concerns about contract terms providing for cancellation fees to be charged.

To assist the Commission published COVID-19: Disrupted travel, events and trade guidance on our website, which answers some of the questions both consumers and businesses may have about their rights and obligations in relation to COVID-19.

Other COVID-19 complaints related to things such as claims that products could cure and protect consumers from the virus. These products included ozone therapy being marketed as effective in disinfecting living areas, lanyards coated in chlorine dioxide that act as a protective barrier to eliminate viruses and bacteria, and herbal products being represented as preventing COVID-19.

In the majority of these cases the Commission was able to successfully educate traders on their obligations under the Fair Trading Act resulting in potentially misleading claims being removed from advertising materials. Under the Act it is illegal for businesses to make an unsubstantiated representation about a good or service without any reasonable basis. Whether a claim is express or implied, consumers need to be able to rely on the accuracy of the claim to be able to make informed purchasing decisions.

Delays in delivery of goods purchased online during lockdown also came under the spotlight, and in December the Commission warned Noel Leeming Group (NLG) for making delivery representations about two products which, in the Commission’s view, it did not have reasonable grounds for at the time the representations were made.

The world businesses and consumers are operating in has changed significantly over the past 18 months, and the Commission is continuing to actively monitor trends in COVID-19 related complaints to understand the extent of any issues.

We are also reminding traders they need to have reasonable grounds to believe that they can supply goods within any timeframe that they state or, if no timeframe is stated, within a reasonable period of time. This is particularly important for businesses to remember with the current ongoing challenges relating to stock availability resulting from COVID-19.

What may have been realistic prior to COVID-19, no longer always is and if traders are not sure when they are going to get stock, they must be open and honest with consumers about that. Businesses must also keep their websites updated so that new customers are given up to date accurate advice regarding stock availability and delivery times.