The number of consumer complaints filed this year with the office of Attorney General Maura Healey is projected to top 20,000, one of the highest totals in recent years, though far fewer than last year.
Consumer complaints exploded in 2020, to about 25,750, an almost 50 percent increase over the previous year. It’s a stark reminder of the devastation wrought by the coronavirus as many businesses shut down or cut back services, prompting disputes over refunds and other matters.
And the disputes continue, with preliminary data from the attorney general’s office showing the number of complaints filed this year — while certainly less than last year — remain substantially higher than prepandemic levels.
The single biggest driver of complaints in 2020 was the travel industry, with thousands of consumers complaining about not getting timely refunds on prepaid travel packages that were canceled because of COVID.
The number of complaints also increased markedly from consumers who said they were unable to get refunds for canceled concerts, shows, and other live events and from consumers who said their fitness and health clubs continued to charge membership fees after closing during the pandemic.
Significant increases in consumer complaints also came in 2020 in the retail and scams categories.
In the three years prior to the pandemic, the number of complaints brought by consumers was on a slightly downward slope, from about 16,000 in 2017 to about 14,000 in 2019, for a three-year annual average of about 15,000.
Then, the pandemic hit, pumping up the number of complaints to an average of more than 70 a day, compared to about 40 a day previously.
This year, as of Nov. 30, the number of complaints topped 19,000, and the attorney general’s office projects nearly 21,000 by the end of the year, an average of 55 complaints filed daily. That’s 40 percent higher than the three-year average before the pandemic.
And as the COVID crisis drags into its third year, the attorney general’s office expects consumer complaints will remain high in 2022, at least for the beginning of the year.
“Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, our efforts to protect consumers and support our most vulnerable communities has become more vital than ever,” Healey said.
Here are the findings of a Globe analysis of consumer complaints data posted online by the attorney general’s office:
The impact of the pandemic was immediate and profound. The number of daily complaints nearly doubled in the 10 weeks after pandemic lockdowns took effect in mid-March 2020, compared with the 10 weeks before.
A big driver? The nearly complete shutdown of the travel industry. In 2020, consumers deluged the attorney general’s office with 4,494 travel industry complaints, more than 12 times as many as the previous year, when consumers logged a mere 355 travel industry complaints.
Within the travel industry, consumers complained most — by far — about businesses that sold them travel and vacation packages, filing 3,261 complaints in 2020, compared to only 46 in the previous year. Airline-related complaints also skyrocketed, from 85 in 2019 to 669 in 2020.
The attorney general’s office said it has helped win more than $22 million in refunds since the pandemic began, mostly in the travel industry, by mediating disputes with businesses.
The travel and vacation package businesses cited by consumers in 2020 included small, individually owned travel agencies; large, Boston-based travel companies; large online travel platforms; student travel and tours agencies; and cruise lines.
“The spike clearly came from people unhappy about not getting refunds for canceled airline flights, cruises, and travel packages,” said Edgar Dworsky, founder and editor of the website ConsumerWorld.org. “Often, travel companies offered credits toward future travel for canceled trips, but people wanted refunds.”
The attorney general’s office has not released detailed data for complaints filed this year, though it has provided a number — 19,112 — for total complaints filed as of the end of November. The attorney general’s office says its preliminary data show significantly fewer travel industry complaints this year than last year.
“Now that most of those refund issues have been resolved, complaints levels are getting back to normal,” Dworsky said.
The number of complaints in the retail category almost doubled in 2020, driven by big increases from consumers unable to obtain refunds for canceled ticketed events. In 2019, fewer than 100 complaints were lodged against ticket sellers; a year later, there were more than 1,000 complaints.
The number of complaints filed against fitness and health clubs in 2020 — more than 600 — was triple that of the previous year. And the number of complaints filed against restaurants, supermarkets and other purveyors of food — almost 650 — was more than double the complaints in 2019.
A four-fold increase in complaints in 2020 — a total of 1,585 — came in the “other retail” category, a catchall grouping that included COVID testing services, nail spas, driving schools, test preparation services, and event venues.
The number of scams reported to the attorney general’s office — a total of 2,052 — jumped by almost 30 percent in 2020, compared to 2019, driven by a doubling in the numbers of complaints — 836 — submitted by consumers who said they had received phone calls from scam artists posing as a business, government agency, or a family member or friend.
Complaints can be filed online here.
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