How to Avoid the Top 10 Consumer Problems

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Used-car salesmen are the butt of many a joke, but their reputation for being shady apparently has some substance to it. In fact, if you’ve had issues with car salespeople, mechanics and even those who tow cars, you have a lot of company.

Car-related consumer complaints topped the Consumer Federation of America’s new top 10 list of consumer complaints. Automotive complaints also came in No. 1 in last year’s report.

The new report is based on a survey of 360,538 complaints received by 40 state and local consumer protection agencies in 2012. The report looks at not only the most common complaints, but also the fastest-growing and the most offensive, such as those that target people who are already struggling.

“Foreclosure rescue scams, dirty debt collection tactics, sudden store closings, and landlords skimping on the heat and ignoring needed repairs are just some of the issues that confront consumers in these difficult economic times,” Susan Grant, the CFA’s director of consumer protection, said in a press release.

Here are the top 10 complaints in the new report:

  1. Auto. False advertising and misstatements in both used and new car sales, the sale of lemons, shoddy repairs, and conflicts over leasing and towing matters.
  2. Home improvement/construction. Faulty work and failing to actually start or complete the task.
  3. Credit/debt. Illegal debt collection practices, mortgage-related fraud, predatory lending, and billing and fee disagreements.
  4. Utilities. Service or billing problems involving electric, natural gas, television and Internet companies.
  5. Retail sales. Defective products, false advertising, disputes about rebates, coupons and gift cards, and failure to deliver.
  6. Services. Failure to perform, falsifications, poor workmanship, failure to obtain required licenses.
  7. Home solicitations. Unfulfilled promises, false advertising, and do-not-call violations.
  8. Landlord/tenant. Providing unhealthy or unsafe living conditions, misrepresentation of listed amenities, failure to make proper repairs, conflicts over rent and deposits, and illegal eviction practices.
  9. Internet sales. Deceptive practices including misrepresentation and failure to deliver purchased products.
  10. Household goods. False advertising, faulty repairs of furniture or appliances, and failure to deliver.

What exactly are people complaining about?

Here are a few real-life examples of complaints received last year by the agencies surveyed:

A Massachusetts consumer applied online for what she thought was a payday loan, but instead of receiving money, she got a line of credit to spend at an online shopping mall, with an annual percentage rate of 1,000 percent. She contacted the Cambridge Consumers’ Council for help when she began to be billed for [a] fee to maintain the line of credit even though she had never used it. To make matters worse, she had received a call from someone claiming to be from a law firm threatening legal action if she didn’t pay (the law firm whose name was used denied ever hearing of the consumer or the company). The agency [had] the fees withdrawn and the account closed.

An elderly Florida woman paid $1,141 for car repairs but her transmission still didn’t work properly. She got a second opinion and was told that her transmission, which was supposedly fixed, needed to be replaced. The bill for diagnostics came to $500. She later found out the first shop did not have an auto repair license.

Here’s another:

Another new Internet-related problem reported to the Maryland Attorney General’s Office involved a company that collected and posted information about individuals’ traffic convictions on its website. Implying that the offenses were more serious criminal matters than they really were, the website offered to remove the information for a fee. Consumers who complained to the agency were able to get the misleading information about them taken off the site at no charge.

The fastest-growing and worst complaints

The report identifies these as the fastest-growing complaints:

  1. Towing disputes.
  2. Landlord/tenant problems.
  3. Abusive debt collection practices.
  4. Telephone service billing issues.
  5. Unlicensed contractors.

“The agencies were also asked about the worst complaints they received last year, which could be based on the number of complaints, the dollar amount, the vulnerability of the consumers, or just the outrageousness of the situation,” the report said. Here they are:

  1. Foreclosure matters.
  2. Problems with home repairs after disasters.
  3. Sweepstakes scams and other frauds targeting elderly consumers.
  4. Business opportunities and work-at-home offers.
  5. Violations of do-not-call and other telemarketing rights.

How to protect yourself

Now that you know about some of the potential scams out there, what can you do to avoid becoming a victim? The Consumer Federation of America offers these tips:

  • With any fee dispute, tell the person or company about any incorrect or unfair charges. Can’t resolve it? Contact your local or state consumer protection agency for help.
  • When buying a used car, do as much research as possible. If you’re questioning the reliability of the seller’s representations, this government website has information about the car’s history.
  • “Never pay the full amount for home improvement work before the job is done,” the CFA says. “Some states impose limits on what percentage of the total price the contractor can request upfront; ask your state or local consumer protection agency.”
  • Don’t be bullied by debt collectors. If you think you’re being illegally harassed, review this information from the Federal Trade Commission.
  • “It’s illegal for companies to ask you to pay a fee or buy anything in order to win or claim a prize – and it’s a sure sign of fraud,” the CFA says. “It’s also important to know that if you send money to someone in another country who turns out to be a crook, you’ll probably never be able to get it back.” If you’re still unsure, the National Consumers League’s Fraud Center provides a list of scams. A good rule to go by: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Have you sent a complaint to a local or state consumer agency? Tell us about it on our Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Cindy Kadinger

    It is so unfortunate contractors have been put into this category, but I understand why it is so infuriating to not have a contractor/builder live up to his or her end of the deal. Above board contractors have had their share of dissatisfaction with their customers as well; once the work is completed it can be impossible to get paid because of some perceived problem on part of the homeowner. To become licensed and bonded in our state, it can be over $10,000 or much more depending on the dollar value of work the contractor consistently does. Then just try to hire employees, all the laws involved in protecting the workers from dehydration, to pee breaks and workman’s comp, makes it almost impossible to form and grow a company. Then, there are the fly-by-nights that throw egg on all of the contractors.
    The best way to hire a person to do some home improvement work for you is to get referrals from others that have used a contractor. Also, if you see work being done at a neighborhood home, watch them and see how they work. Some contractors work part-time when the get off their full-time job, so they are there in the late afternoon and evening and on weekends, they are typically master craftsmen trying to make extra money for their family. Watch and see how they manage their tools, how they keep the jobsite clean and picked up, how often they show up and what types of activities they do when they are there (are they working or on the phone a lot?). More goes into hiring a contractor that just looking at his license, crooks can get those licenses too; all you need is money to pay the fees. You think the state looks into your practices? No, they just take your money and crooks typically have more money than the working stiff trying to make a living in this sucky economy.