Washington, D.C. — Pandemic-related problems were among the top ten complaints made to state and local consumer agencies in 2020, according to an annual survey by Consumer Federation of America (CFA). They also topped the lists of worst, fastest-growing, and new complaints. “COVID-19 generated complaints about everything from appliance repairs to childcare, trash pick-up to towing,” said Susan Grant, CFA’s Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy. “Business closings, job lay-offs, supply chain disruptions, social-distancing requirements and travel restrictions put huge strains on consumers and businesses, as the survey shows.” State and local consumer agencies also dealt with a deluge of complaints last year about price-gouging and pandemic-related scams.
Thirty-four city, county and state consumer agencies from 18 states participated in the survey, which asked about the complaints they received last year, their biggest achievements, and new consumer protection laws enacted in their jurisdictions.
Top Ten Complaints in 2020
- Auto: Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, deceptive financing practices, defective vehicles, faulty repairs, car leasing and rentals, towing disputes.
- Home Improvement/Construction: Shoddy work, failure to start or complete the job, failure to have required licensing or registration.
- Landlord/Tenant: Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities, deposit and rent disputes, illegal eviction tactics.
- Credit/Debt: Billing and fee disputes, mortgage problems, credit repair and debt relief services, predatory lending, illegal or abusive debt collection tactics.
- Services: Misrepresentations, shoddy work, failure to have required licensing or registration, nonperformance.
- Utilities: Complaints about gas, electric, water and cable billing and service.
- Retail Sales: False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, failure to deliver.
- Travel: Misrepresentations about cost, amenities or other aspects of travel packages, failure to provide promised services, disputes about refunds.
- (Tie) Health Products/Services: Misleading claims, unlicensed practitioners, failure to deliver, billing issues; Internet Sales: Misrepresentations or other deceptive practices, failure to deliver online purchases.
- (Tie) Pandemic: price gouging, refunds for canceled events and travel, financial issues, problems getting repairs and other services, “self-help” evictions, scams, and other complaints stemming from the pandemic; Fraud: Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries, work-at-home schemes, grant offers, fake check scams, imposter scams and other common frauds; Household Goods: Misrepresentations, failure to deliver, repair issues in connection with furniture and major appliances.
This ranking is based on the categories that appeared most frequently in the consumer agencies’ “top ten” complaint lists. Collectively, the 34 agencies that participated in the survey handled 280,413 complaints and recovered or saved more than $262,973,073 for consumers in 2020 through informal mediation, administrative action, and lawsuits.
COVID-19 also significantly changed the way state and local consumer agencies operated. Most had to switch to working entirely remotely. Some agencies provided staff with cell phones and laptops and set up secure systems to enable them to work entirely from home. Others sent small numbers of personnel into their offices on a rotating basis to handle the phones and mail. Their staffs sometimes fielded calls about problems totally unrelated to consumer protection because people were unable to get through to other state or local agencies. Forced to rely on technology more heavily than ever, agencies encouraged consumers to communicate with them via email and used online platforms for administrative hearings and educational events that would normally be conducted in person. “State and local consumer agencies had to turn on a dime to change how they worked,” observed Grant. “They continued to provide vital information and assistance to the public without missing a beat.” The “Consumer Agencies Biggest Achievements” section of the report describes how agencies resolved consumers’ problems, improved their operations, and reached out to the public even as the pandemic raged.
Examples of Pandemic Complaints
- Wedding Fireworks Fizzled. A young couple had planned a river boat fireworks cruise as part of their wedding. Because public gatherings were restricted to 10 people and they had invited 60, they asked to cancel the cruise. The business refused to cancel without penalty. The couple were given a choice of losing 25 percent of their deposit if they canceled by a certain date or 100 percent if they waited longer to cancel. With the help of the District of Columbia Attorney General’s Office, they were able to obtain a full refund of $1,750.
- The Price Wasn’t Right. A consumer complained to the New York State Division of Consumer Protection that a local restaurant was adding a surcharge when customers paid by credit card. The restaurant insisted it was following the law and said its credit card processor had assured it that the practice was acceptable. However, the agency explained that under New York law, businesses that charge differently for credit cards must publish their prices to reflect the higher credit card amount. A business can offer a discount to cash-payers but cannot add an extra charge for paying with a credit card. The restaurant provided that information to the credit card processing company, which quickly adjusted its software to eliminate the surcharge and notified all of its clients of the change.
- Pasty COVID Cure. Investigative work by the Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs in California helped the Los Angeles City Attorney resolve a case against a local company, Insan Healing, and its CEO, Angela Oh, for allegedly advertising and selling radish paste as “a must-have product for the protection and prevention of the COVID-19.” The settlement provided for full restitution to consumers, a broad injunction, and a $20,000 civil penalty.
- Landlord Goes Too Far. After a landlord allegedly used physical violence against one tenant and attempted to have another tenant deported by ICE to remove them from their apartments, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office went to court to seek emergency injunctive relief to protect the tenants and witnesses in the case from any further harassment.
- Gym Member Gets Exercised. When a gym closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic, a customer was told he could freeze his membership so he wouldn’t be charged. However, he was charged $43.14 for the month of June. When he took it up with the gym, he was offered a 50 percent credit instead of a full refund. In disgust, he canceled his membership and was charged a fee for doing so. The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office got his money back.
- Ticket in Paradise. It was a lovely evening in Florida, and a woman parked her car in a lot at a beach to go for a stroll. When she attempted to put money in the meter, the screen was frozen. A resident who lived nearby informed her that people were not being charged for parking due to the pandemic. When she returned to her car, however, there was a $75 ticket from the private company that operates the lot. She filed an appeal, which was denied without explanation. The woman called and emailed the company multiple times, with no response. She filed a complaint with the Broward County Environmental and Consumer Protection Division, which got the ticket withdrawn.
- Masked Robbery. More than 2,300 price gouging complaints were filed with the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office last year. The agency sued Stephen Gould Corporation, a New Jersey-based business that allegedly offered millions of N95 masks to the North Carolina Emergency Management Unit of the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, UNC Health, Duke Health, and the Charlotte Chapter of the American Red Cross at a markup of more than 100 percent. If the sales had been successful, the company would have profited more than $30 million per transaction. In addition to winning a $150,000 judgment, the agency obtained an order permanently barring the company from engaging in unfair and deceptive practices or selling personal protective equipment at unreasonably excessive prices.
- Deep Freeze. Last winter an elderly couple who suffered from numerous disabilities and had another older woman living with them in their home asked the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office for assistance. Their HVAC unit, which was under warranty, had stopped functioning in August 2020. The business that sold it to them sent several subcontractors to try to repair it, but they were unsuccessful. The consumers had been using space heaters for months to keep warm. It soon became clear that the necessary parts were not available due to the pandemic. The business agreed to resolve the problem by replacing the HVAC unit.
- Smelly Situation. Fairfax County Department of Cable and Consumer Services in Virginia received 41 complaints involving trash companies in 2020. Due to workers’ exposure to COVID-19, trash companies struggled to maintain service. Consumers complained that their trash or recycling were not picked up as scheduled, nor were alternate arrangements made. They also complained that while their service had been reduced, their rates had increased. With the help of the agency consumers received credits for missed service, got reduced rates in some cases, and were provided with more timely service.
- No Home Away From Home. A woman asked the Consumer Assistance Council in Massachusetts for help when her request for a refund for a home she rented in Oak Bluffs for a week in August last year was denied. She explained that she could not travel to Massachusetts because of the requirement to self-quarantine for two weeks and the limited heath care facilities on the Cape. She was especially concerned about the potential for contracting the COVID-19 virus and bringing it home to her elderly mother, for whom she was the sole caregiver. The real estate broker agreed to rebook the house and refund the woman’s deposit, minus a small fee.
One thing that became clear in reviewing the complaint stories is that the usual terms of service and cancellation policies don’t take into account the unusual circumstances consumers experienced last year. For example, in one complaint, a mother put a prom dress on layaway for her daughter and when the prom was canceled, the retailer refused to return her money. “Since it wasn’t the consumer’s fault that the prom was canceled due to COVID, she understandably felt she shouldn’t have to pay for a fancy dress that her daughter, stuck at home, had no place to wear,” explained Grant. Often consumer agencies were able to persuade businesses to make exceptions to their regular cancellation and refund policies, but not always. They generally had a stronger basis to argue that consumers should be able to cancel with no penalty and get their money back when the pandemic prevented businesses such as party venues and sports promoters from being able to provide the promised services. Even then, however, consumer agencies sometimes found it difficult to resolve the problems. For instance, some childcare providers that were forced to temporarily close insisted that parents continue to pay their fees in order to “save” their children’s slots when the facilities reopened.
The “Pandemic Complaints” section of CFA’s survey report provides other examples of COVID-related complaints. There are Ten Tips for Navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic (and Other Disasters) in the report and separately at here.
State and local consumer agencies also continued to receive complaints last year about issues unrelated to the pandemic. Examples of these are provided in the “Real-Life Complaints” section of the report. There are tips for consumers throughout that section and collected in Appendix B.
The full 2020 Consumer Complaint Survey Report is available here.
Contact: Susan Grant, 202-939-1003