Consumer Agency Survey Reveals Top Consumer Complaints
A new survey conducted by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators (NACAA), and North American Consumer Protection Investigators (NACPI) identified the top ten consumer complaints in the nation for 2009.
The survey also indicated that the nation’s economic woes hit consumers and state and local consumer agencies hard last year. The majority of agencies surveyed received more complaints in 2009 than the previous year, and many of those complaints were related to credit and debt. At the same time that demand was up, many of these agencies saw their resources shrink.
The Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs was one of 33 state and local consumer protection authorities who participated in the survey. According to Joe Doyle, Administrator of the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs, the top complaints among Georgia consumers pertained to goods/merchandise, debt collection, auto repairs/service, used car sales, and cable/satellite. These issues were among the nation’s top-ranked complaints as well.
Top Consumer Complaints Nationwide for 2009
“Consumers who are desperately trying to fend off collection agencies or save their homes from foreclosure are prey to scammers who offer to help them and then take their money and run,” said Susan Grant, CFA Director of Consumer Protection. “Despite layoffs, hiring freezes, and furloughs, state and local consumer agencies are making herculean efforts to keep up with these and other complaints.”
In addition to bogus offers to help consumers save their homes from foreclosure, which were the fastest-growing nationwide complaints last year, complaints that were particularly related to the recession included aggressive collection practices, debt settlement and other types of debt relief services, advance fee loans, business opportunities, business closings, landlord/tenant problems resulting from foreclosures, job scams, investment schemes, and auto dealers failing to pay off loans on trade-ins.
“When times are hard, consumers are more vulnerable to false promises of easy ways to make or borrow money,” said Anna Huddleston-Aycock, a Justice Analyst with the Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services in Florida and current President of NACPI.
The agencies that responded to the survey received more than 300,000 individual complaints and obtained nearly $110 million in restitution or savings for consumers last year. “State and local consumer agencies handle all kinds of complaints, from a $15 order that the consumer never received, to a $150,000 problem with a home improvement contractor, to multi-state actions involving thousands of consumers,” said Elizabeth Owen, NACAA Executive Director.
Following are the complaint categories that most frequently appeared in the agencies’ top ten lists. Their ranking in the top ten in 2008 is noted in parenthesis.
Top Consumer Complaints for 2009
- Auto: (1) Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars; lemons; faulty repairs; leasing and towing disputes
- Credit/Debt: (3) Billing and fee disputes; mortgage-related fraud; credit repair; debt relief services; predatory lending; illegal or abusive debt collection tactics
- Home Improvement/Construction: (2) Shoddy work; failure to start or complete the job
- Utilities: (4) Service problems or billing disputes with phone, cable, satellite, Internet, electric and gas services
- Retail Sales: (5) False advertising and other deceptive practices; defective merchandise; problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates; failure to deliver
- Services: (6) Misrepresentations; shoddy work; failure to have required licenses; failure to perform
- Internet Sales: (9) Misrepresentations or other deceptive practice; failure to deliver online purchases
- Household Goods: (7) misrepresentations; failure to deliver; faulty repairs in connection with furniture or appliances
- (tie) Landlord/Tenant: (8) Unhealthy or unsafe conditions; failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities; deposit and rent disputes; illegal eviction tactics; Home Solicitations: (9) Misrepresentations or failure to deliver in door-to-door, telemarketing or mail solicitations; do-not-call violations
- Health Products/Services: (10) misleading claims; unlicensed practitioners; failure to deliver
Ten Ways That Consumers Can Protect Themselves
Before you buy from unfamiliar companies, check with the Better Business Bureau and online complaint forums to see if other people have reported serious problems.
- Hire licensed professionals. When you’re hiring home improvement contractors or other professionals, ask your state or local consumer agency if they must be licensed or registered and how you can check to confirm that they are.
- Pay the safest way. When you buy goods or services that will be delivered later, pay with a credit card so you can dispute the charges if they don’t arrive or aren’t what you were promised.
- Use gift cards and gift certificates promptly. Even well-established businesses can suddenly close or go bankrupt, and it may be impossible to get refunds for the unused balances on gift cards and gift certificates.
- Don’t pay in full upfront. If you are asked for a deposit for home improvement or other services, pay a small amount, never the full price upfront.
- Recognize the danger signs of fraud. Be suspicious of any requests to wire money; scare tactics or pressure to act immediately; promises that you can borrow, win or make money easily if you pay a fee in advance; and any situation in which someone gives you a check or money order and asks you to send money somewhere in return.
- Get all promises in writing. Verbal agreements are hard to prove. Carefully read contracts or finance agreements and make sure you understand them before you sign.
- Seek help for financial problems from legitimate sources. If you’re having trouble paying your bills, consult a nonprofit consumer credit counseling service. Steer clear of debt settlement services that require most or all of the fees to be paid before any of your debts are settled. If you can’t afford your mortgage payments, contact your lender to try to work out a loan modification. If the lender is unresponsive or unhelpful, call 1-800-569-4287 or go to http://nhl.gov/offices/hsg/sfh/hcc/hcs.cfm to find a local housing counselor certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Reject unsolicited offers of help from any company except the lender to whom you send your mortgage payments.
- Know your debt collection rights. Under federal law you have the right to dispute debts that you don’t owe, and many states prohibit action to collect debts after a certain number of years. Federal and many state laws also prohibit debt collectors from calling with annoying frequency, falsely threatening legal action, and discussing debts with people who aren’t legally responsible for them.
- When in doubt, check it out. If you’re not sure what your rights are or you think something might be fishy, ask your state or local consumer agency for advice.
Georgia consumers who have a complaint against a business can contact the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs at 404-651-8600 or 800-869-1123.