Complaints about misleading goods and services tripled last year, with most being lodged after the amended Trade Descriptions Ordinance took effect in July.
The Customs and Excise Department said yesterday that it received 2,360 complaints last year, with 85 per cent lodged after July. This compared with fewer than 600 in 2012.
"The trend of complaints that we received reflected that, in fact, a lot of these complainants are very, very aware of their rights," commissioner Clement Cheung Wan-ching said in a year-end review.
In another key area of customs activity, Cheung said involvement of syndicates was increasingly evident in smuggling of milk formula across the border, with 33,000kg intercepted and 4,737 people arrested.
Amendments to the trade descriptions law expanded its coverage from goods to services, bringing entertainment, travel, cosmetics and telecommunications into its orbit from July 19.
Of the complaints, 2,051 were received in the last half of the year - 1,552 concerning goods and 499 about services.
Almost 400 investigations were launched into the former and 126 into the latter, but by the end of the year, only six prosecutions were in progress.
Cheung said such cases were difficult to crack because some businesses acted together.
"We are very aware that some retailers or industries act intentionally [to deceive] or act in organised groups," he said.
Dried seafood retailers, currency exchanges and health-product sellers aimed at the elderly were among industries where malpractice involving organised groups was found.
"These call for a more hidden method of investigation that may take longer … as these lawbreakers do not lack resources and have a well-developed communication network, so we have to be very careful not to alert them prematurely."
Complaints about false trade descriptions topped all categories, with 1,303 received, followed by 346 about misleading omission of information and 199 about wrongful acceptance of payment.
Three out of four complaints were about goods, with 31 per cent of these concerning foodstuffs, followed by household goods and electronic products, which accounted for 15 and 9 per cent, respectively.
In terms of services, travel topped all categories, with 26 per cent of complaints received. Beauty and hair was second, with 17 per cent, and education third, with 11 per cent.
Smuggling of cigarettes is on the rise, with 89 million seized last year, up 17 per cent from 2012. Large seizures of more than 500,000 cigarettes surged 50 per cent.
Fewer dangerous drugs were seized, however - 445kg, down from 1,268 kg in 2012. Cocaine seizures plunged to 176kg from 602kg in 2012, while ketamine seizures fell to 50kg, about a tenth of the 496kg seized in 2012.