Consumer Protection

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Major Issues & Resources

Resources for consumers

Federal Trade Commission

The Federal Trade Commission "works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them."

Ten Consumer Categories on the FTC's Consumer Information page contain a total of 44 subcategories of "practical information on a variety of consumer topics."

The FTC's teaser pages show consumers what typical scams look like. Each teaser page contains a link that leads to a notice that the offer is bogus and a description of the scam.


Consumer Product Safety Commission

"The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is an independent federal regulatory agency created to protect the public from unreasonable risks of injuries and deaths associated with some 15,000 types of consumer products. An important part of this mission is to inform the public about product hazards. CPSC uses various means to inform the public. These include local and national media coverage, publication of numerous booklets and product alerts, a web site, a telephone hotline, the National Injury Information Clearinghouse, CPSC's Public Information Center and responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests."


FirstGov for Consumers

"FirstGov for Consumers is a 'one-stop' link to a broad range of federal information resources available online. It is designed so that you can locate information by category — such as Food, Health, Product Safety, Your Money, and Transportation. Each category has subcategories to direct you to areas within individual federal web sites containing related information." Their search box makes it easy to find relevant government webpages based on your search term.


Consumer Action — Federal Citizen Information Center

Consumeraction.gov is basically a web interface to information in the Consumer Action Handbook. The handbook is also available as a PDF document. It provides information on many consumer topics and can help you find consumer contacts at hundreds of companies and consumer organizations. It includes a sample complaint letter.


Better Business Bureau

For a fee, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) allows businesses that meet certain membership standards to become members and display the BBB logo*. "The purpose of the BBB system is not to act as an advocate for businesses or consumers, but to act as a mutually trusted intermediary to resolve disputes, to facilitate communication, and to provide information on ethical business practices. Businesses have supported the BBB for over 80 years because an ethical marketplace is in everyone's best interest."

The BBB claims that "the majority of marketplace problems can be solved fairly through the use of voluntary self-regulation and consumer education." Their services to consumers include mediation and arbitration of disputes with both BBB member businesses and non-BBB member businesses. "Because the BBB is not a government or law enforcement agency, the Bureau cannot force a reply from a company; nor can it administer sanctions. However, a company's unwillingness to respond to the BBB or a customer will be noted in the company's reliability report the BBB provides to the public."

The BBB publishes limited information about past complaints against member and non-member businesses, searchable by business name. Their FAQ says that they don't report on private actions or small claims court actions against companies.

*

Misuse of the BBB seal by a website should be reported to bbbonlinets@cbbb.bbb.org. BBBOnLine says "when you see a BBB trustmark on a web site, be sure to click on it. The trustmark should link to a page [on the BBB's website] confirming the business is a BBB accredited business and shows the BBB's current report on the company. Be cautious when a BBB trustmark is not correctly linked to a BBB page confirming accredited business status. It could be a sign of misuse of the mark."

Statistics

Consumer Sentinal — the FTC's Fraud and Identity Theft Database
Top Sentinal Complaint Categories for 20061
  1. Identity Theft — 246,035 (36%)
  2. Shop-at-Home/Catalog Sales — 46,995 (7%)
  3. Prizes/Sweepstakes and Lotteries — 45,587 (7%)
  4. Internet Services and Computer Complaints — 41,243 (6%)
  5. Internet Auctions — 32,832 (5%)
  6. Foreign Money Offers — 20,411 (3%)
  7. Advance-Fee Loans and Credit Protection/Repair — 10,857 (2%)
  8. Magazines and Buyers Clubs — 8,924 (1%)
  9. Telephone Services — 8,165 (1%)
  10. Health Care — 7,467 (1%)
  11. Business Opps and Work-at-Home Plans — 7,460 (1%)
  12. Travel, Vacations and Timeshare — 6,712 (1%)
  13. Office Supplies and Services — 5,723 (1%)
  14. Grants: Scholarships/Educational & Non-Educational — 5,310 (1%)
  15. Employ Agencies/Job Counsel/Overseas Work — 4,485 (1%)
  16. Investments — 3,630 (1%)
Other Coded Complaints — 12,399 (2%)
1Percentages based on total number of complaints (674,354) in 2006. Twenty-four percent (160,399) didn't contain specific product service codes. For category descriptions, see Appendix B of the full report.

Consumer Fraud and Identity Theft Complaint Data (2006) analyzes the 674,354 complaints in the Consumer Sentinel database, which is maintained by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Identity theft was the most common complaint category, with the most common forms being credit card fraud (25%), phone or utilities fraud (16%), bank fraud (16%), employment fraud (14%), documents/benefits fraud (10%), and loan fraud (5%). Electronic fund transfer-related identity theft continued to be the most frequently reported type of "identity theft bank fraud." The metropolitan areas with the highest per capita rates of reported identity theft were Napa, California; Madera, California; and McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas.

In the report's Executive Summary, identity theft is discussed in one section while other complaint categories are discussed under the heading fraud. This is somewhat confusing since identity theft encompasses various types of fraud. 428,319 complaints are listed as fraud-related, which apparently includes some complaints categorized as identity theft and some "other coded complaints" not within the top 16 listed in the chart.

"Consumers reported fraud losses of over $1.1 billion; the median monetary loss was $500. Eighty-five percent of the consumers reporting fraud also reported an amount paid. The percentage of fraud complaints with wire transfer as the reported payment method continues to increase. Twenty-three percent of the consumers reported wire transfer as the payment method, an increase of 8 percentage points from calendar year 2005. Some 60% of fraud complaints where the company's method of initial contact was reported indicate Internet solicitations - electronic mail at 45% and web at 15%. Seventy-two percent of all fraud complaints reported the method of initial contact. The metropolitan areas with the highest per capita rates of reported consumer fraud complaints are Greeley, Colorado; Albany-Lebanon, Oregon; and Napa, California."


FTC Fraud Survey
Top 10 Frauds (FTC)
  1. Advance-fee loan scams—4.55 million victims
  2. Buyers clubs—4.05 million victims
  3. Credit card insurance—3.35 million victims
  4. Credit repair—2 million victims
  5. Prize promotions—1.8 million victims
  6. Internet services—1.75 million victims
  7. Pyramid schemes—1.55 million victims
  8. Information services—.8 million victims
  9. Government job offers—.65 million victims
  10. Business opportunities—.45 million victims
FTC Releases Consumer Fraud Survey
August 5, 2004

In 2003, the FTC "commissioned a survey of 2,500 randomly-chosen adults about their consumer experiences during the previous year." On August 5, 2004, the FTC published the results in Consumer Fraud in the United States: An FTC Survey, which showed that over one in ten Americans were fraud victims. The press release announcing the report includes "the top 10 frauds listed in the report." Those ten were the only types of fraud that survey participants were asked about, representing "...the most prevalent types of complaints reported in the FTC's complaint database..." and "...frauds that have frequently led to FTC enforcement actions."

Also studied in the survey were "two additional situations that frequently indicate that a fraud may have occurred....(1) paying for a product or service that a consumer does not receive and (2) being billed for a product [other than products covered in the top ten frauds], that a consumer had not agreed to purchase" and "'slamming'—a situation in which a consumer's long distance telephone service is switched from one carrier to another without the consumer's permission." The survey found that an estimated 13.9 million consumers were victims of slamming.

The report tries to justify the "conservative" method used to determine who's a victim with a footnote that says "In the context of a randomized telephone study, we have very limited information about the nature of the businesses with whom the consumers were interacting." The study is useful, but could have been more accurate.


NACAA/CFA Consumer Complaint Survey
Top 10 Consumer Complaints
  1. Home improvement/repairs
  2. Automobile sales
  3. Automobile repairs
  4. Credit
  5. Telecommunications/cable/satellite
  6. Debt collections/billing practices
  7. ID theft/deceptive practices
  8. Internet/ISP/e-commerce
  9. Major purchases/household goods
  10. Telemarketing/sales practices
Thirteenth Annual NACAA/CFA Consumer Complaint Survey Report
February 10, 2005

The 13th Annual Consumer Complaint Survey Report, based on complaints reported by state and local consumer protection agencies in the U.S. and Canada during 2003-2004, was conducted by the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators (NACAA) and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA). It's based on 60 NACAA member responses to an electronic survey that posed questions about their most recent year's complaint records.

NACAA is a membership organization of consumer protection agencies represented by city, county, state or provincial levels of government. CFA is a non-profit association of 300 consumer groups, founded in 1968 to advance consumers' interests through advocacy and education. The organizations have worked together since 1992 to survey consumer complaints filed at NACAA member agencies across the nation.

Respondents were surveyed from October 2004 to January 2005. Agencies responding represented 27 states, including border to border, north to south, large to small states with nearly an equal amount of county, city and local jurisdictions. 97% of the respondents were American national state, city, and county offices of consumer protection. Populations served by these agencies surveyed range from 40,000 to 22 million. Canadian provincial agencies, serving over 35 million consumers, also participated.


NACAA/CFA Internet and E-Commerce Complaints
Top 10 Internet/E-Commerce Complaints
  1. Auctions
  2. Merchandise ordered over the internet
  3. Internet service providers
  4. Nigerian letter scams or similar
  5. Business opportunities
  6. Credit cards/credit repair
  7. Spam
  8. Phishing
  9. Lotteries/sweepstakes
  10. Other: unsolicited porn, digital subscriber lines, travel
Thirteenth Annual NACAA/CFA Consumer Complaint Survey Report
February 10, 2005

The 13th Annual Consumer Complaint Survey Report (see above) includes a top 10 list specifically for internet related complaints. Fifty-one agencies provided the number of complaints they received in the last year involving internet service providers (ISPs) and online transactions.

For complaints against ISPs, ten agencies received fewer than 100 complaints, five agencies reported 100-200 complaints, three agencies reported 200-300 complaints, and another three reported 300-400 complaints. Fairfax, Virginia's Department of Cable Communication and Consumer Protection reported 1,200 complaints about ISPs, representing 30% of their total complaints. Northern Virginia is home to AOL.

For online transaction complaints, the California Public Utilities Commission reported receiving over 7,800 complaints, while three additional agencies exceeded 1,000 complaints. The Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs in Georgia reported nearly 2,000 complaints — 9% of their total. The Attorney General's Office of Washington State reported 1200 complaints concerning online transactions — 5% of their total. Canada's Competition Bureau reported 3700 internet-related complaints — 22% of their total. Thirteen agencies received fewer than 100 complaints.


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Consumer Protection Index

Consumer protection resources arranged alphabetically

ATMs (See Automatic Teller Machines)
Automatic Teller Machines

The American Bar Association has a webpage about ATMs and the law with links to numerous sections about issues such as ATM fees and using ATMs safely.

Automobile Buying and Leasing (Also see Product Safety and Liability)

The website of the American Bar Association has pages about buying a new car, lemon laws, and auto leasing. Each page contains links to several subsections.

Bankruptcy (See Debt)
Car Buying and Leasing (See Automobile Buying and Leasing)
Cash Cards (See Credit and Credit/Debit/Gift cards and Payment Processors)
Checks and Money Orders (Also see Payment Processors)

See the National Consumers League's information about check and money order scams.

Children and Teenagers (Also see Parents)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Kid's Home Page is a colorful source of health information that's aimed at children. It includes a link to a page titled Health Information for Teens that contains links to information on legal and illegal drugs, summer safety, female issues, tattoos, and a couple of illnesses, but nothing on sexually tranmitted diseases or healthy living. It mainly covers products that the FDA regulates.

LifeSmarts is "an educational opportunity that develops the consumer and marketplace knowledge and skills of teenagers...The program complements the curriculum already in place in high schools and can be used as an activity for classes, groups, clubs, and community organizations. LifeSmarts, run as a game-show style competition, is open to all teens in the U.S. in the 9th through 12th grades."

Computers and Computer Crime (See E-commerce, Internet Crime, Phishing, Software, and Spam)
Credit and Credit/Debit/Gift cards (Also see Payment Processors)

The National Consumers League's publication Debit Cards: Beyond Cash & Checks provides two pages of debit card information and a comparison between debit and credit cards. It's undated but presumably still accurate.

The American Bar Association's credit page includes links to information about applying for credit, choosing a credit card, and checking your credit record.

Cybercrime (See E-commerce, Internet Crime, Phishing, Software, and Spam)
Debt

The American Bar Association's bankruptcy page includes links to information about "the two major forms of personal bankruptcy and the other options that exist for those in financial straits."

E-commerce (Also see Payment Processors and Phishing)

Safeshopping.org was created by the American Bar Association. According to the homepage, the website deals with "cyber-shopping," but you'll find some information on safe shopping in general.

Finance (See Checks and Money Orders, Credit and Credit/Debit/Gift Cards, and Payment Processors)
Gift Cards (See Credit and Credit/Debit/Gift cards)
Health

If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Consumer Health Information page doesn't cover the health topic you're interested in, their A–Z index will.

The American Bar Association's page titled The Law & Your Health focuses on managed care topics. "Under managed care [including HMOs] specific doctors, hospitals and other health care providers agree with the insurance company to give you medical care at a reduced cost. In return, all members use that specific list of doctors and hospitals."

The ABA's website also provides pages on medical malpractice and health care advance directives.

Home Improvement (Also see Real Estate)

The Federal Trade Commission's Home Sweet Home Improvement provides some useful information for consumers considering a home improvement project, including how to deal with contractors, but keep in mind that it's dated August 2001. It links to the National Association of Home Builders' website (see NAHB's consumer page) for more information.

Homes (See Home Improvement and Real Estate)
Identity Theft (Also see Phishing)

Members of the United States Armed Forces should report identity theft here. For others, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) maintains an online complaint form that you can use to report identity theft to the FTC. Your information will be entered into a database that's accessible to law enforcement agencies around the country.

If your complaint is about a legitimate business and you're having trouble getting that business to correct your records or your billing as a result of an identity theft, file a Better Business Bureau complaint against that business.

Make sure you report the identity theft to your local police department as soon as possible after you first become aware you are a victim. Get a copy of the police report, which will help you in notifying your creditors and credit reporting agencies.

Also see idtheft.gov — "your one stop resource for government information about identity theft."

Internet Crime (Also see E-commerce, Phishing, Software and Spam)

Cybercrime.gov is the website of the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section (CCIPS) of the U.S. Department of Justice. The CCIPS investigates, litigates, and proposes legislation to combat computer and intellectual property crime. Related information can be found on their website, including Latest Press Releases and this guide listing appropriate federal investigative law enforcement agencies for reporting computer, internet-related, and intellectual property crimes.

CCIPS's guide for reporting crimes makes numerous references to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) which "gives the victims of cyber crime a convenient and easy-to-use reporting mechanism that alerts authorities of suspected criminal or civil violations."

Malpractice (See Health)
Medical (See Health)
Money Orders (See Checks & Money Orders and Payment Processors)
Parents (Also see Children and Teenagers)

The FDA's Parent's Corner links to information on general health and safety, pregnancy and birth, infant care, childhood diseases and vaccines, health risks from animals, and other websites for parents.

Payment Processors (Also see Checks and Money Orders, Credit and Credit/Debit/Gift Cards, and Automatic Teller Machines)

Companies with websites sometimes utilize payment processors, such as Paypal, to accept payment from their customers. One way to check whether a payment processor handles personal information securely is to see if they're listed in Visa's List of CISP Compliant Service Providers. CISP is Visa's Cardholder Information Security Program, and to be compliant with CISP, a company must be compliant with the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard.

Phishing (Also see Identity Theft)

ID theves "phish" by using "spoofed" email and counterfeit websites to pretend to be someone they're not and trick people into providing their Social Security numbers, financial account numbers, PIN numbers, and other personal information.

The National Consumers League (NCL) publishes a three page pdf document titled Avoid Getting Hooked by Phishers, which can also be found here. The publication recommends reporting phishing to the NCL's Fraud Information Center. The Fraud Information Center's website has its own page of phishing information.

"The Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) is the global pan-industrial and law enforcement association focused on eliminating the fraud and identity theft that result from phishing, pharming and email spoofing of all types." Their website has sections on how to avoid phishing scams and what to do if you've given out your personal financial information. You could also report phishing email and websites to them for possible inclusion in their phishing archive.

Visit CastleCop's Phishing, Fraud and Dastardly Deeds forum for phishing related discussion. CastleCops's Phishing Incident Reporting and Termination Squad (PIRT) is a community dedicated to taking down phishing sites. Simply reporting a phishing scam to CastleCops makes you a PIRT Squad member. PIRT Squad Handlers are specially trained volunteers who investigate and report scams to interested agencies.

Product Safety and Liability

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is a government agency that was created to protect the public from dangerous consumer products. See the full CPSC entry on this page.

For the more law oriented topic of product liability, which Cornell Law School describes as "the liability of any or all parties along the chain of manufacture of any product for damage caused by that product," see Cornell's Products Liability page.

The American Bar Association provides information on several personal injury topics, including product liability.

Real Estate (Also see Home Improvement)

The website of the American Bar Association has pages about Buying or selling a home, renting a home, and the law and your home. Their page on where to get more information includes a link to the U.S. Department of Urban Development's consumer information page.

Shopping (See E-commerce)
Software

The American Bar Association has a page on buying and using software that links to several pages covering topics such as protecting yourself as a software consumer and the legality of copying software.

Spam

"Do you receive lots of junk email messages from people you don't know? It's no surprise if you do. As more people use email, marketers are increasingly using email messages to pitch their products and services. Some consumers find unsolicited commercial email — also known as spam — annoying and time consuming; others have lost money to bogus offers that arrived in their email in-box."

The above is from the Federal Trade Commission's introduction to their spam information. Information is available for consumers and businesses.

For spam that's deceptive, "forward it to spam@uce.gov. The FTC uses the spam stored in this database to pursue law enforcement actions against people who send deceptive email."

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