Washington, D.C. — Problems with car sales and repairs and home improvement and construction once again topped the list of complaints reported to state and local consumer agencies across the country, according to an annual survey by Consumer Federation of America (CFA). “When the used car you just bought breaks down or your new roof leaks, who are you going to call? It’s your state or local consumer agency,” said Susan Grant, CFA Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy. Ms. Grant conducts the survey, in which 31 agencies from 19 states participated this year. It asked about the most common, the fastest-growing, and the worst complaints agencies received in 2019. Agencies were also asked about new consumer problems, new laws enacted in their jurisdictions to protect consumers, and their greatest achievements in resolving complaints, improving their operations, and providing information to the public.
Since the survey focused on complaints and other activities in 2019, the report CFA released today does not reflect the impact of COVID-19. The work of state and local consumer agencies has not stopped during the pandemic, but it has changed. Agencies whose personnel are working remotely have had to set up call forwarding and secure connections to computer systems. Others have a limited number of staff members in their offices on a rotating basis to answer the phones and perform other functions. In some cases, volunteers who help mediate complaints have been sidelined because they lack the necessary internet service or technological skills to work from home. Walk-in assistance is not available at agencies that are closed to the public; services are provided by phone or online instead. Educational presentations are being conducted virtually. The pandemic has also spurred complaints about price-gouging and COVID-related scams.
Fortunately, many agencies implemented new technology or upgraded their data systems before the pandemic struck. These changes have made complaint intake and case management easier. In some cases consumers can provide all documentation and check the status of their complaints online. Many agencies have also beefed-up the information on their websites and increased their use of social media for public outreach. These operational improvements are helping consumer agencies fulfill their public protection mission in this challenging time.
Top Ten Complaints in 2019
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, 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.
- Retail Sales: False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, failure to deliver.
- 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.
- (Tie) Communications: Misleading offers, installation issues, service problems, billing disputes with telephone and internet services; Services: Misrepresentations, shoddy work, failure to have required licensing or registration, nonperformance.
- Health Products/Services: Misleading claims, unlicensed practitioners, failure to deliver, billing issues.
- Utilities: Complaints about gas, electric, water and cable billing and service.
- (Tie) 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, repairs issues in connection with furniture and major appliances.
- Internet Sales: Misrepresentations or other deceptive practices, failure to deliver online purchases.
“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’ files appear in “Real-World Complaints” and “Biggest Achievements.” There are also tips for consumers throughout the report about how to protect themselves and resolve problems.
- A Car with a Mind of its Own. An Arkansas woman’s dream car turned into a nightmare when she discovered that the radio went on and off at will and the volume shot up or dropped down uncontrollably. The only way to deal with these problems was to shut the car off and wait for the computer to reset itself.
- Firefighter Sees Red. A volunteer firefighter in Montgomery County, Maryland was incensed when telephone calls to supposedly raise money for his fire station and others in the area were actually being made on behalf of a political action committee that was not distributing any of the proceeds to support local firefighters.
- Debatable Debts. A debt buyer allegedly purchased a portfolio of accounts from an unidentified seller on Craigslist who provided no supporting documentation demonstrating the ownership or validity of the debts and then threatened Georgia consumers with legal action if they refused to pay.
- Bad Deal. A company offered to provide veterans and retirees in Maryland with instant cash by purchasing the rights to their pensions or annuities. The lump sum payments consumers received, however, were treated as loans with highly usurious interest rates, locking them into making payments for many years into the future that would add up to far more than the amounts of money they got.
- The Sky’s the Limit. When the promoters of “lantern sky festivals” to be held in North Carolina were forced to cancel because their aerial lanterns were prohibited under the state fire code, they continued selling tickets and failed to provide refunds to people who bought them or to respond to consumer complaints.
- The Chinese Embassy is Not Calling. If you’ve received a pre-recorded call in Mandarin on your cell phone, it may be from fraudsters posing as Chinese embassy officials. They tell people they’re wanted for questioning because their families in China are involved in a major fraud investigation but that they can send money for “bail” to get out of the situation. Some San Franciscans emptied their savings accounts, mortgaged their homes, or borrowed heavily to wire the money overseas.
- Scooter Scam. A Massachusetts man with cerebral palsy, vision impairment and other health issues that prevent him from obtaining a driver’s license ordered a scooter from a company for $1,999.99 to help him get around. He was told that financing was available. A woman from the finance company called to say that she was emailing him the paperwork and asked him to stay on the phone until it appeared in his inbox. She then instructed him to skip to the last page and initial some boxes. When he received the completed contract he realized there would be 57 monthly payments of $92 and a $262 buyout at the end, making the total cost nearly $6,000.
- Twenty-five homeowners in Hillsborough County, Florida paid a contractor substantial amounts upfront to install pools in their yards. He dug the holes, poured the concrete bases, and then abandoned the projects. Not only were the consumers out the money, collectively more than $1.2 million, but subcontractors who had not been paid placed liens against their property. One couple, who spent $50,000 they received in a settlement following a car crash that killed their daughter, said, “We wanted that space to be able to go out and find the peace that we search for and so we were looking forward to it. We want him to know that he’s hurt us greatly.”
- Dead Dogs. A California man offered puppies for sale online for $350 to $1,400. Dozens of consumers reported that the puppies were extremely ill immediately or within days of arrival, requiring expensive veterinary treatment, and in many cases the puppies died. One consumer said that after notifying the seller that his puppy had died, he was sent a replacement, but sadly that puppy also died within days.
- Ants and Armadillos, Oh No! A Florida woman complained that there were armadillos living under the home she rented and carpenter ants in the walls. There were also several ant colonies in the yard. Her son was attacked by ants twice outside, resulting in anaphylactic shock, hours at the hospital, and days of steroid treatment. In addition, the armadillos had dug eight-inch holes all over the yard, creating a minefield. The landlord claimed to have treated the ants, which didn’t seem to solve the problem, and suggested that the woman try to catch the armadillos herself.
- Scorpions Be Gone. A pest control company solicited Connecticut consumers for expensive, long-term service contracts that included eradicating scorpions, which are not commonly found in the state.
- To Own or Not to Own, That is the Question. A company that buys foreclosed properties enticed New Mexicans to enter into lease-purchase agreements. It encouraged the consumers to make improvements to the homes by representing that they owned them, when in fact they did not. If the consumers weren’t able to obtain financing to purchase the homes or were late on their monthly payments, they faced quick eviction and losing everything they had invested in the property.
“Many complaints can be resolved through mediation, and some consumer agencies can also take formal legal action when that is warranted,” said Ms. Grant. “But when it comes to fraud, prevention is the key since the money and the culprits often disappear without a trace.” In a new trend reported by one consumer agency, scammers are instructing victims to stay on the phone while they go to the bank to withdraw funds or to stores to buy gift cards in order to make payment. “This enables the crooks to essentially hold the victims captive and tell them how to respond if a bank teller or cashier becomes suspicious and starts asking questions,” said Ms. Grant. “The public education that state and local consumer agencies provide is crucial for preventing fraud and abuse.”
The full 2019 Consumer Complaint Survey Report is available here.