Consumer ripoffs, scams and disputes are alive, well and changing as the nation emerges from recession, consumer protection experts said Tuesday.
"There is a boundless creativity of scammers to find new ways to fleece consumers," warns Susan Grant, the Consumer Federation of America's director of consumer protection.
Unlicensed contracting was the fastest-growing complaint reported by the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency in 2012. In Pinellas County, the Department of Justice and Consumer Services cited loan modification and foreclosure scams as some of the worst complaints it received last year.
These are just a few local examples gathered by the Consumer Federation of America and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators in their annual survey of state and local consumer protection agencies. The 2012 survey results, including the nation's top and fastest-growing consumer complaints, were described Tuesday during a national news teleconference.
"Persistent consumer complaints were tied to economic hard times, from foreclosure problems," Grant said, to websites posting false traffic convictions and offering to remove them — for a fee.
This annual survey rehashes many of the same complaints from the past decade: auto dealers misrepresenting car sales and repairs; cable TV, electric utilities and phone companies adding fees for no reason; poor and unfinished construction work on homes.
In all, the 40 consumer protection agencies surveyed said they received 360,538 complaints last year, saving or recovering just under $98 million for consumers.
But this year's study also cited examples of the fastest-growing areas of consumer complaints. Among the worst: landlord/tenant problems, abusive debt collectors, telephone service billing issues and unlicensed contractors.
A new complaint that hopefully won't stick around: a charge for disputing a bill.
No surprise, Florida suffered more from foreclosure disputes and abuse.
In one example from Pinellas, a local law firm contacted several consumers with promises to lower their monthly mortgage payments and prevent foreclosure. The consumers paid an average of $3,000 each for help and never received any. Instead, the firm closed, and the attorneys denied any responsibility, blaming the individual who operated the service.
One of Hillsborough's worst complaints of shoddy construction work involved a national home builder's failure to build footers (part of a foundation) for a new home. That failure allegedly caused the home to crack, move and sink. The builder blamed the homeowner for not maintaining the house, but an inspection confirmed the lack of footers. The matter is now in mediation.
Another Hillsborough complaint: rent payments stolen from management drop-boxes at apartment complexes.
ID theft that leads to stolen federal tax refunds — a big area problem — got little notice in the news conference but is mentioned in the annual report.
Budget cuts are thinning the nation's ranks of consumer protection services. Appreciate those that remain. Better yet, become your own best defense against scams.
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]