The blind carbon copy (BCC) button on emails exists for a very good reason. Unfortunately one of AAMI's managers failed to use it the day she sent a message to 110 private addresses. Even worse than releasing private emails, the message went to all the people with ongoing disputes against AAMI with the Financial Ombudsman Service.
Now the email has accidentally united a group of people, already very unhappy with one of Australia's largest insurers, and who are now exploring the possibility of launching a class action.
"I just felt the whole game shifted at that point," said Michael Thorne, who has been locked in a dispute with AAMI for nearly two years.
"It went from David and Goliath to a whole heap of Davids and Goliath."
Within one minute of the email arriving, recipients started replying all: "This surely can't be a list of people with current disputes against AAMI with the FOS?" It was.
AAMI spokesman Reuben Aitchison said the email from a customer relations manager was a "simple but unfortunate human error involving a small number of customers.
"Email addresses were inadvertently placed in the 'To' field of the email, rather than in the 'BCC' field. As soon as we realised our error, we contacted each affected customer to apologise, explain what happened and assure them that no other personal information was revealed."
Mr Aitchison said AAMI, owned by Suncorp, has provided further training to the staff member and used it as a reminder for the rest of the company about email protocols.
But Dr Thorne said he still has not received an explanation from the insurer, nor a follow-up phone call as requested.
Since being united in late July, this group of unhappy clients has been comparing stories about long-running disputes over insurance claims. The group realised that many complaints were now running into a second year, and included people left paying for cars that were unsafe to drive - despite being "fixed" - and people left without any belongings after AAMI allegedly forgot to tick the "contents" box on their insurance plan.
The group has also discussed launching a class action against the company and has been talking to lawyers.
Dr Thorne said it became clear to the group that AAMI used similar delaying tactics with all the correspondents and would "fight hard and dirty" after consumers lodged disputes with the FOS.
"The first thought was anger that they had released the addresses. The second thing was bemusement at how many AAMI disputes there are before the FOS. And then I think people started to feel in it together," Dr Thorne said.
"I thought [our claim] was just a comedy of errors by AAMI ... and then I realised that everybody was in the same boat. It seems to be systemic."
Mr Aitchison said AAMI had a "good working relationship" with the FOS and tried to resolve matters as quickly as possible.
The FOS mediates between consumers and financial services companies, such as AAMI. If it cannot settle a dispute it decides in favour of one party. Last year it accepted 25,300 disputes from Australian consumers and resolved 98.7 per cent. According to its records, the chances of an AAMI customer having a dispute over car insurance was 27 out of every 100,000 customers, higher than the industry median of 14.5.
A FOS spokeswoman would not say if the FOS could launch an investigation into AAMI if the group was able to identify common problems, noting that the FOS would "need to consider the issues in respect of the circumstances of the particular matter".
Managing director of crisis management consultants De Wintern group, David Van, said companies should adopt permanent "reputational management" strategies to avoid fallout from incidents such as this.