SALT LAKE CITY — Landlords evicting elderly tenants for hoarding, trash removal companies charging fees to retrieve their own bins when customers cancel service and title pawns similar to title loans are among the questionable practices found in the Consumer Federation of America's 2017 compilation of top consumer complaints.
Not much in the report is totally new when it comes to displeasing or bilking consumers, according to Susan Grant, the federation's director of consumer protection and privacy.
"It's rare that we see something that's completely new and different, and it's more common to have variations of something old," she told the Deseret News. "It makes sense, because it's probably more work to come up with new things."
The same old complaints continue to flourish in part because "we have new crops of consumers coming up all the time," she said, who haven't heard of different questionable practices.
The annual reckoning, released Monday, is a "what's what" of unhappy consumer interactions from data gathered in 23 states by 38 local and state consumer protection agencies. In total, regulators collected 908,595 complaints. The report says those same agencies also recovered or saved more than $2 billion by initiating mediation, winning lawsuits, levying fines and other action on behalf of consumers and in response to their complaints.
During a conference call for the media Monday, representatives of consumer agencies nationwide shared stories of consumer vexation. Shawn Conroy, from the Georgia Attorney General's Office, for instance, noted that 60 percent of the 5,000-plus consumers identified through discovery in a case involving an alarm system were elderly or disabled.
That's doesn't mean the elderly are the most-often targeted or even the most vulnerable, Grant said. "There's a scam for everyone, and no one is immune." Instead, she noted, certain demographics may be drawn to particular business dealings.
People who are older may be hit hard, though, because they may have accumulated more wealth that can be taken from them, compared to younger consumers. And they have less time to recover economically because of age, Grant said. "I know of situations where they have lost their life savings and are going to be financially distressed for the rest of their lives."
Not all the complaints related to fraud or illegal activity, Grant said. Some of what annoys consumers is legal, though it may be troubling.
Nor do all complaints involve bad actors. Sometimes it's a lack of understanding. Consumers may complain about a television that didn't work when the consumer brought it home, only to find that the TV was fine, but not compatible with the equipment to which it was connected, Grant said.
Consumer protection agencies were powerless to help with some complaints outlined in the report. For example, when people use an app that connects buyers and sellers and something goes wrong, Grant said, it's not a consumer protection problem, though it might be a police matter if there's out-and-out theft.
Officials try to protect consumers, and police sometimes set up safe places for buyers and sellers to meet. Consumer protection agencies try to warn residents when questionable or outright fraudulent activities come knocking — or ringing, or emailing.
Motor vehicles figure prominently in the most common consumer complaints nationally, the report says. So do housing and construction. According to the federation, "These transactions often involve significant amounts of money, but the financial loss is not the only issue. Many consumers rely on their cars for transportation and are greatly inconvenienced when they break down, can’t be driven because of difficulty obtaining the titles or have other issues. Home improvement and construction problems can also cause tremendous hardships for consumers, even homelessness."
The report warns consumers to be aware of their legal rights before purchasing home alarm systems or solar panels — emerging challenges that some states are creating regulations to help ease. The Utah Legislature, for example, passed a written-disclosure law related to selling or leasing solar power that specifies what consumers must be told in a transaction.
According to the report, the most common complaint categories in 2017 were:
1. Auto. The complaints ranged from false advertising, bad sales practices, lemons, lousy repairs, auto leasing and towing disputes. The report included a complaint about a Louisiana repair shop owner who kept coming up with excuses about backlogged parts. Meanwhile, he was selling off parts of a customer's car. Most issues were not that blatant.
2. Home improvement and construction. Poor quality work, not showing up or not finishing the job were common complaints. In Massachusetts, a couple paid $68,000 for renovation and the contractor split with the cash, leaving a giant hole in the yard to remember him by.
3. Retail. Bad merchandise, false advertising, problems with coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, among others.
4. Credit/debt. Disputed bills and fees, mortgage issues including fraud, predatory lending and debt relief or debt collection issues.
5. Landlord/tenant. Broken promises, poor living conditions, deposit and rent disputes and illegal evictions, among others.
6. Services. Misrepresentation and not getting the job done — or at least done well.
7. Communications. Phone and internet service complaints, from installation to service and billing problems and misleading offers.
8. Health. Unlicensed providers, misleading claims, billing issues and more.
9. Household goods. Defective appliances and furniture, bad repairs, no delivery, among others.
10. (Tie) Home solicitation, internet sales and travel. Misrepresentation, failure to deliver, billing issues and more across categories.
Alarm system sales are an area of "particular concern," according to the report. "In one case, a company sent a letter that looked like it came from the county government to new homeowners warning neighborhoods were unsafe because of 'the opioid crisis,' and offering 'free' alarm systems as part of a countywide program."
Some alarm sellers claimed local police use their systems, while others failed to let consumers review contracts and didn't provide copies.
Increasingly, consumers are asked to sign agreements on electronic handheld devices. Often it's fine, but Grant warned consumers may not see all of the contract or get a copy. That came up in the alarm system complaints, too.
"I think we may see more and more of that," she said, noting consumers need to be able to review and retain copies of contracts they sign.
CFA warns consumers to be leery of statistics offered without substantiation and high-pressure sales tactics. Be skeptical, too, of a good deal that's so time-limited one must rush to decide.
One way consumers can protect themselves is to look up their rights before they enter into an agreement. Take questions to a consumer protection agency before signing if you're unsure. Consumer protection websites often frequently have information and relevant warnings for consumers, Grant said.
The report noted that Utah has been proactive in protecting consumers. For instance, the state's Division of Consumer Protection has a dedicated team to handle simple cases quickly so resources can be focused on more complicated cases.
The division also participated in a stop-fraud effort with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the U.S. Attorney General's Office, the FBI, the IRS and other agencies, holding events for consumers in several counties over the year.
Online offers and sales comprised the top complaint received by Consumer Protection in Utah, according to division director Daniel O'Bannon. He noted in an email that "much of this is likely driven by complaints about the online sales of nutraceuticals. We advise consumers to be sure to read the terms and conditions of sales on the internet. For example, consumers often sign up for products to be sent every month without realizing it."
He noted that such "terms and conditions" have to be "clearly and conspicuously disclosed." If they're not, consumers should file a complaint with the division, O'Bannon said.
The Federal Trade Commission releases its "Sentinel Consumer Network Data Book" each year. In 2017, Utah ranked 44th among states for fraud and other losses. It was 27th in identity theft reports, with 2,452 saying they'd had identity stolen. Imposter scams edged out identity theft in the state's Top 5, followed by debt collection, telephone and mobile services and prizes, sweepstakes and lotteries.