Washington, D.C. — Auto-related problems continued to top the list of most common complaints in the latest report from the annual survey of state and local consumer agencies conducted by Consumer Federation of America (CFA). Thirty-five agencies from twenty-one states across America participated in the survey, which asked about the most common complaints, the fastest-growing complaints, and the worst complaints received in 2018. In addition, the report identified new kinds of consumer problems, agencies’ greatest achievements, and new laws enacted in the agencies’ jurisdictions last year to protect consumers.
Top Ten Complaints in 2018
These are the complaints most frequently cited as the top problems reported to state and local consumer agencies last year.
- Auto: Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, auto leasing, rentals, and towing disputes.
- Home Improvement/Construction: Shoddy work, failure to start or complete the job.
- Retail Sales: False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, failure to deliver.
- Services: Misrepresentations, shoddy work, failure to have required licenses, failure to perform.
- (Tie) Landlord/Tenant: Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities, deposit and rent disputes, illegal eviction tactics; Utilities: Complaints about gas, electric, water and cable billing and service.
- Health Products/Services: Misleading claims, unlicensed practitioners, failure to deliver, medical billing issues.
- (Tie) Credit/Debt: Billing and fee disputes, mortgage modifications and mortgage-related fraud, credit repair, debt relief services, predatory lending, illegal or abusive debt collection tactics; Communications: Misleading offers, installation issues, service problems, billing disputes with telephone and internet services.
- Internet Sales: Misrepresentations or other deceptive practices, failure to deliver online purchases.
- Home Solicitations: Misrepresentations, abusive sales practices, and failure to deliver in door-to-door, telemarketing or mail solicitations, do-not-call violations.
- (Tie) Household Goods: Misrepresentations, failure to deliver, faulty repairs in connection with furniture or appliances; Fraud: Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries, work-at-home schemes, grant offers, fake check scams, imposter scams and other common frauds.
“Real-World” Consumer Stories
These complaint stories from the report illustrate just some of the problems that individuals ask their state or local consumer agencies for help with. Additional stories from agencies’ the files appear in “Real-World Complaints” and “Biggest Achievements” sections of the report. There are also tips for consumers throughout the report about how to protect themselves and resolve problems.
- Double Damage. Consumers complained that a Florida car rental company charged them for damage that the vehicles already had when they received it. In one instance, the consumer took a picture of the damage on the car after the company employee failed to note it on the contract as he had requested, which came in handy when he returned the vehicle and the same employee accused him of causing the damage.
- Adding Insult to Injury. A single mother in Massachusetts bought a used car on the basis of the dealer’s ad describing it as good quality, safe, and recently serviced. Shortly afterwards it broke down due to engine and transmission problems and she could not afford to fix it, so it sat parked on the street outside her home. The consumer agency negotiated with the dealer to take the car back, but before that could happen, it was towed because of a parking ban during a snow storm. The dealer retrieved the car, then claimed the woman had damaged it. A photo from the original ad, however, showed the damage was already there.
- Bad Deal. An elderly Arkansas man was coerced into signing a financing contract for a new $50,000 vehicle and trading in his old car, despite the fact that he could not afford the purchase, and it should have been clear to the dealer that he did not understand the terms of the agreement.
- With a Friend Like That. An Ohio woman took advantage of friends and acquaintances, falsely claiming that she was seriously ill or about to lose her home and asking them to lend her money. Her motive was apparently love – she was a victim of a romance scam, and instead of paying people back as she promised, she wired the money overseas to a man with whom she was communicating online. She was ordered to pay $641,908 in restitution to the victims.
- How Much is That Doggy in the Window? A Connecticut woman wanted a puppy but couldn’t afford the $1,200 purchase price, so the pet store owner offered to let her take it and pay in monthly installments of $100. She signed the contract, but later discovered that it was a lease, with a buyout charge at the end if she wanted to keep the dog. The payments, which included interest, would total $3,575.97.
- Woman Got Less Than She Bargained For. On a cruise to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, an Arkansas woman followed the recommendation of a “shopping consultant” to visit a jewelry store during a shore excursion. She intended to buy earrings, but was pressured to buy a diamond ring instead for $5,800. Once back on the ship she told the consultant that she wanted to return it and was assured that she had 30 days to do so. When she contacted the store, however, she was told that there were no refunds for “buyer’s remorse.” An appraiser valued the ring at $4,500.
- Treemendous Charge. As result of two hurricanes and a brutal winter storm last year, there were hundreds of complaints in North Carolina about violations of the state’s price gouging law. One out-of-state tree service tried to charge a homeowner $14,500 for removing two trees without getting consent first to do the work. This came to a rate of $1,800 an hour per worker. After the homeowner refused to pay, the company placed the bill in the hands of a debt collector who engaged in misrepresentations and high-pressure tactics to try to get the money.
- Grievous Situation: A funeral home was operating in Washington, DC without the proper licenses and charging grieving families for services it never provided. Because it was unlicensed, it could not issue death certificates, preventing families from accessing the deceased’s financial accounts, beginning probate proceedings, and burying or cremating the bodies. It also misappropriated consumers’ funds; in one case it accepted an insurance payment of $53,000 for services that cost $5,767 and failed to give the beneficiary the balance.
- Pesky Roommates. A couple from New York rented an apartment in Paris for two months through Airbnb. Immediately upon arrival, they began to itch and discovered that the apartment was overrun by bedbugs. All of their belongings and their two dogs were also infested. They had to move out and get everything treated to eradicate the pests.
- Bus-ted. An American Legion chapter in Florida chartered a bus to transport members to Port Canaveral for $2,380. The agreement was that $500 would be paid upfront with the balance due when the trip was completed. The bus company debited the group’s bank account for the $500 deposit. Four days later, $1,000 was debited, followed by $1,380 the next day, even though the trip had not yet taken place. When questioned, the bus owner said it was a mistake and promised to return the money immediately. He didn’t; instead, he withdrew another $3,500, for a total of $5,880. A month later he sent a check for $1,000 as a partial refund, but it bounced.
- Second-Story Job. A homeowner in Maryland who needed more space for his family hired a contractor to add a second story to the house. There was no written contract, and no structural engineer. The contractor asked an interior designer, who was not an architect, to draw up the plans and pull the building permit in the homeowner’s name. After the consumer paid the agreed-on price, $180,000, in a series of checks, the contractor asked for $10,000 more, which he got. When he asked for still more, the homeowner refused. The contractor walked off the job and fled the country.
- Not Going to Take It Anymore. Residents of a senior living apartment complex in Virginia were tired of putting up with unresolved maintenance problems, including lack of air conditioning during hot weather, pipes bursting, and damage to drywall. Though the management threatened to evict them if they complained to anyone about the problems, they finally had enough and sought help.
“Dealing with the broad range of issues that are presented to state and local consumer agencies requires a combination of expertise and creativity,” said Susan Grant, CFA Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy. For instance, a mediator for one agency researched tribal law to successfully get a consumer released from a costly loan that the lender claimed was not subject to government usury laws because of tribal immunity. Another challenge is serving diverse populations, where language and disabilities can make consumers more vulnerable to abuse but also more difficult to assist. One example is the consumer agency that had to use an interpreter to communicate with a complainant who was profoundly deaf and also had trouble reading and writing. “State and local consumer agencies go the extra mile to try to help people resolve their problems, visiting the house to look at the incomplete renovation job, contacting the manufacturer when the retailer won’t replace a faulty product, even working out of a closed business to return people’s belongings to them,” Grant said.
The report provides information from the agencies about new problems consumers reported during the past year and new consumer protections that have been enacted in their jurisdictions. “Measures such as the new rules issued in New York City last year to combat predatory used car sales demonstrate why state and local laws are essential elements of the consumer protection framework in the United States,” said Ms. Grant. The report also highlights some agencies’ biggest achievements last year, from major enforcement actions, to streamlining operations, to developing computer games to teach high-school students about financial issues.
To see the full 2018 Consumer Complaint Survey Report go here. In connection with the report, CFA and several of the agencies that participated in the complaint survey have created blogs with practical advice for consumers. From July 30 through October 7, 2019 these blogs and accompanying infographics will be released twice a week and can be found here.