State Consumer Protection Agencies Look Out for Your Best Interest
In March (2005), California Attorney General Bill Lockyer announced a $500,000 settlement with the operators of a phony high school whose victims consisted of mainly Latino immigrants who had paid hundreds of dollars to obtain an education and receive a high-school diploma. The Southern California school, which taught that the U.S. has 53 states and four branches of government, was not recognized or accredited by any governmental authority, and the diplomas the victims received were useless in helping them qualify for financial aid, meet admission requirements of accredited universities and vocational programs, and satisfy employers' high-school diploma requirement. The settlement amount includes civil penalties and $400,000 in restitution to the victims.
This settlement is just one of the many victories achieved by state-based consumer protection agencies, which look out for consumers' interests and do their best to put a stop to scammers, crooks, and quacks. If you need consumer information, want to lodge a complaint against a business or licensed professional, or think that a product may be unsafe, one of these state resources may be able to help.
The attorneys general of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. are the chief legal officers of their respective states. As such, they are responsible for protecting the public interest and enforcing their state's consumer protection laws. To uncover, curtail, and prosecute illegal business practices, attorneys general use tools such as complaint hotlines, mediation, and civil and criminal litigation.
An attorney general's office typically focuses its resources on scams, defective products, disreputable companies, and unfair business practices with multiple victims. Often, attorneys general from a number of states will work together to fight fraud that affects consumers in more than one state.
State-based consumer protection agencies put a stop to scammers, crooks, and quacks.
The National Association of Attorneys General provides a list of all the attorneys general, their office contact information, and links to their Web sites. Some attorney general offices have stronger consumer protection programs than others, and how much help they can provide depends in part on the size of the staff. Visiting your attorney general's Web site is a good way to learn about the types of issues the office handles, the complaint procedure, and other resources that may be available to solve your problem. If yours is not the type of case that has broad implications, the attorney general's office may be able to refer you to the appropriate consumer protection resource.
State consumer protection office
Every state has a consumer protection office. In about 35 states, it is a dedicated unit of the state attorney general's office. In other states, it may be a part of the governor's office, or a stand-alone agency. In any case, consumer protection offices:
To find your state's consumer protection office, visit the State Resources page of the Consumer Action Web site. The organization also publishes the 168-page 2005 Consumer Action Handbook (including 31 pages of state and local resources), which you can download or order.
Boards, commissions, administrators, and regulators
Certain industries, services, and businesses--from doctors and real estate brokers to beauticians and child-care providers--are licensed and regulated at the state level. In some states, this is the responsibility of the state consumer protection office or the secretary of state (the National Association of Secretaries of State Web site links to each state's office). In other states, it may be a board or agency that handles complaints against businesses and professionals in a particular industry and has the authority to take disciplinary action against members.
For example, you may be able get help from your state's:
Where to turn when you have a complaint
There are many layers of consumer protection help, and it's not always clear just who has jurisdiction over which types of issues. In addition to state resources, many cities and counties have their own consumer protection agency, an outpost of the attorney general's office, or a district attorney's office that handles consumer protection issues for the community. And, of course, there are a number of federal resources, such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC).
You can avoid frustration by adopting a do-it-yourself attitude.
"It's difficult for the average person to know where to begin [when it comes to finding help with a consumer complaint]," says Chris Bjorklund, an independent consumer affairs consultant in San Francisco. "I like starting with the most-local resources possible for assistance and guidance, and then expanding out as necessary."
As the Consumer Action handbook points out, the advantage of contacting a city or county government office is that the staff may be familiar with local businesses and local ordinances. Bjorklund, a former on-air consumer reporter, reminds people that their local radio and TV consumer hotline programs can be great places to get help resolving a complaint about a local business. If they can't help directly, they can steer you to the right place--or tell you if you don't have a case at all.
Lest you think you have Superman on your side when your transmission goes out for the third time after supposedly being repaired, both Bjorklund and Elizabeth Owen, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators in Brentwood, Tenn., want consumers to understand that state resources are dwindling, and consumer protection services and staff are being reduced across the board. These cuts are making it increasingly difficult to reach a live person who can help you with your problem.
Consumer protection services and staff are being reduced across the board.
On the bright side, Bjorklund is confident that the chances of averting problems in the marketplace are better than ever thanks to the Web, where today's consumers can, in a matter of minutes, research any company they're considering doing business with, learn about scams before they become the next victim, and share their experiences with other consumers.
If it's too late to avoid a problem, Bjorklund says consumers can avoid frustration by adopting a do-it-yourself attitude, especially when trying to resolve minor problems. Sites like those offered by the Federal Citizen Information Center and ConsumerWorld.org offer excellent tools and information, from step-by-step instructions for making a complaint--including a sample complaint letter--to links to companies' online customer service departments.
Owen acknowledges the trend toward more self-sufficiency, but also points out the good that consumer protection offices achieve even with a fraction of the resources they once had.
"Despite budget cuts, you will find government consumer protection workers to be the most dedicated and caring public servants there are," said Owen. "They are truly passionate about their work."
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