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Consumer protection saves us all money

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Consumer debt and bankruptcies are at record highs. Many families cannot resist the illusion of a good deal, regardless of the cost. Ads sell fantasy to gullible consumers who believe the come-on of zero down and no payments.

Even Utah retailers tout tremendous sales and specials, many of which cannot possibly be true. Fortunately, laws prohibiting false and deceptive advertising protect Utah consumers. Unfortunately retailers know that no one enforces the laws.

Not long ago my son A.J. and I were in search of a new computer. We scanned the ads and found a tremendous buy. We hotfooted to the office supply store giddy at finding such an unbelievable deal. Too late, the manager informed us. Only a few incredibly priced computers had been available, and they had sold out the first hour.

I politely informed the manager that the ad gave no notice that only a few computers were stocked and surely they must have anticipated the demand for such a bargain. He agreed that the demand far exceeded the supply and personally offered to show us another computer, which wasn't better but did cost twice as much. In other words, we fell for the bait.

I informed the manager that Utah law prohibits bait-and-switch ads, which make it a deceptive sales practice to advertise a product and not inform the public that quantities are limited. He told me to take it up with his corporate headquarters because it was a nationwide advertisement.

Rather than waste my time I filed a lawsuit in small-claims court against the national chain for running an ad that was deceptive because it did not disclose that few, if any, computers existed at the price advertised. In Utah false advertisers can be fined $2,000, which is paid to the wronged consumer.

Small-claims courts exist in every Utah city. They usually schedule cases after working hours and can award a plaintiff a maximum of $5,000. Individuals are encouraged to represent themselves, and the proceeding are tailored for non-attorney litigants. The form to start a small-claim proceeding is unusually simple.

On our court date A.J. and I showed up with a copy of the ad we responded to and the name of the person who told us about the short supply. The store manager represented the company.

Our small-claims court judge intently listened as I read him the law. He looked thoughtful and then wondered out loud why I should be compensated when I hadn't spent one penny in the store. He said although the store clearly broke the law by not informing the public of the very limited quantities, why should I get free bucks from the store.

I explained that consumer protection laws penalize offending merchants by awarding consumers money for bringing the deceptive act to the attention of the store or public. The money is not to reimburse expenditure; it is a penalty so the store will think twice about falsely advertising again.

I was ultimately awarded $2,000. A.J. and I then purchased two computers courtesy of the national chain.

Even though Utah has strong anti-false advertising laws to protect consumers, the Utah Consumer Protection Division rarely takes action to enforce the law. Over the years I have wondered why the consumer protectors are invisible. Think about it. Have you ever heard of a case being brought on the public's behalf by the agency? Have you ever heard of the agency?

Right now there are furniture stores that have been going out of business for years. Some stores continually advertise they are liquidating their inventory, but they keep restocking it. Some car dealers continually advertise deals that even the most unsophisticated buyers have to know are unbelievable. Yet every day consumers get suckered into deals with interest rates above 20 percent and hefty down payments — for clunkers.

Whenever possible consumers should take businesses that practice deceptive sales tactics to small-claims court and collect $2,000. In outrageous cases the Consumer Protection Division should be the public advocate. But the agency doesn't see itself as a consumer champion. If it did it wouldn't put up with all the shenanigans that are currently taking place. It would be more proactive and lay down the law.

Good consumer protection agencies save us all money and protect the honest businesses that compete fairly and with integrity. Regrettably it is sometimes hard to find them because their deals don't sound as good.

Protect yourself from unscrupulous sellers by avoiding businesses that run patently false ads or which advertise deals too good to be true. You'll be better off, and hopefully they will get the message. The caution "buyer beware" applies today more than ever because in Utah the consumer truly is on his own.

Utah native Mike Martinez, an attorney in private practice, is active in Hispanic affairs. He has previously worked in the Utah Attorney General's Office, the Salt Lake County Attorney's Office and for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, D.C. E-mail: mmartinez@prism.net