SALT LAKE CITY — If you ever bought a used car that broke down days later or had a roofer pocket your cash and walk away without putting shingles on an overhang, you're not alone.
The Consumer Federation of America's 2018 Consumer Complaint Survey Report, released Tuesday, includes nearly 1.15 million complaints about fraud, misrepresentation and sketchy business practices. And those are just the ones gathered by staffers from the 35 agencies in 21 states that participated in this year's annual reckoning. The compilation covers a broad range of misdeeds that seem limited only by a miscreant's imagination.
Folks were scammed at home, on cruises, at school, in shops and where they work. They lost money, time and in some cases property, like cars. They paid for schools that closed without refunding money, were charged for warranties they never agreed to, and signed on for fake vacation rentals. In one case in the report, roofing contractors pretended to be insurance adjusters, steering work to their company and potentially affecting the price the consumer expected to pay.
To get a sense of the range of complaints, consider these examples:
- In a twist on rent-to-own, a Connecticut woman signed a contract to buy a puppy by paying in installments, only to discover she was leasing it and would need to pay a buy-out charge or return the pet. The final cost on what was supposed to be a $1,200 dog came to nearly three times that amount.
- An elderly woman was sold a high-mileage, years-old car by a New York used-car dealer who charged 24.89 percent interest and hid fees in the contract.
- A Washington, D.C.-area funeral home wasn't licensed and couldn't issue death certificates, charged for services it didn't provide and in at least one case took an insurance payment of more than $50,000 — nearly 10 times the cost of the service it provided — but didn't refund the balance.
- Fake "experts" offered bogus advice to immigrants seeking help.
- Folks everywhere nationwide answered phone calls from what looked like local numbers, only to find Caller ID had been "spoofed."
Consumers facing those and other situations may be able to get help, but they need to contact local consumer protection agencies, said the federation's director of consumer protection and privacy, Susan Grant.
"The state and local agencies are the first line of defense for consumers, righting individual wrongs, stopping abusive practices in the marketplace and recouping people's money or saving them from paying unjust charges. They're the agency that consumers contact when the roofer has left the job half done, the used car they bought a few days ago has broken down or they realize they may just have become victims of the grandparent scam," she said during a conference call with reporters.
Lots of bad acts
The report includes a snapshot of the most common complaints, the fastest-growing complaints and the worst complaints. It also outlines new efforts within states to protect consumers and punish misdeeds. Consumers who want to learn more about preventing fraud will find expert tips at the end of the report.
The top complaints by volume in 2018 involved automobiles — everything from misrepresentation in the advertising and sale of new and used cars to bad repairs, lemons and towing disputes, among others.
Home improvement and construction complaints weren't far behind. Consumers contacted agencies about jobs that were poorly done and both failure to start and failure to finish jobs.
Third place went to retail sales — and complaints covered a broad range of misdeeds that included false advertising, poorly constructed merchandise, issues with rebates and coupons and gift cards, as well as not receiving what one purchased.
Other top complaint categories were services, landlord/tenant issues, utilities, health products and services, credit/debt, communications, internet sales, home solicitations, household goods and frauds like lottery and fake check scams.
During the conference call, Nathan Forster talked about problems with third-party companies convincing consumers to drop their usual utility provider — say a gas or electric company — and go with a reseller on the promise of lower bills, which doesn't happen. Forster, from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, told of a 90-year-old woman with dementia who supposedly signed up for service with such a supplier, though it was clear she was not capable of knowingly agreeing. In another case, a woman complained her father was signed up, though he couldn't speak English and clearly could not have understood what he was agreeing to.
Most disturbing, Forster noted, is that low-income people "disproportionately bear the burden." They're targeted because they have few resources and a need to save money. States also lose money when utility resellers commit fraud on consumers, he added.
The fastest-growing complaints involved fraud, medical billing or retail.
Fraud cases include "imposter" scams where individuals pretend to be from the IRS or local law enforcement, among other agencies.
Medical billing complaints cover a broad range, from unexpected charges to consumers not realizing care's cost and what would be covered by insurance, to deliberate mischarges.
Retail sales complaints were all over the place, too: high-pressure tactics, lousy quality merchandise, refund disputes, businesses closing before purchases are delivered and problems with gift cards.
The report details what different states and local governments are doing to combat consumer problems. Utah, for instance, recently passed a law requiring online ticket resellers to make clear they are not primary ticket sellers, among other disclosures.
Los Angeles is tackling its affordable housing issues through a temporary rent stabilization ordinance that caps rent increases and prevents unjust evictions.