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Let's review Action's mission

I do not always please Action's readers.

In early April, a reader wrote that while he appreciates the public service the column offers, it could benefit from more editorial comments and asides. He particularly took me to task for letting businesses "get away" with the excuse that an "honest mistake" was made.

More recently, another reader was disappointed that I had printed, and therefore in her mind had implicitly accepted, the business' version of her dispute with it. She asked me to continue to assist her in resolving the matter and not settle for what she said was the bogus response of an angry business person.

Then there are the occasional histrionic and nearly always anonymous messages left on Action's voice mail, venting frustration at the column and anger that I have not obtained a desired result or righted a perceived wrong.

I have been writing Action for a little over a year and it is time, I think, to review what I have learned about Action's purpose, what it can, and cannot, do.

The "column" in Action column is misleading if you think you are always going to get an opinion about which side of a dispute is right and which is wrong. While I have some latitude to offer opinions and often do, they must be based on facts. Getting facts in the middle of a conflict between an unhappy consumer and a business trying to protect its reputation or image is an inexact science. Getting all the facts is often impossible. Action has no power to subpoena documents or compel sworn testimony.

Often there is no documentation or paper trail, only differing recollections and interpretations of conversations and events. It is possible in such cases that both sides are being open and honest but are seeing things in entirely different ways. All I can do is report each side's version of the dispute, and when possible, use the account to help the column's readers become better informed and educated consumers.

Do some businesses use the excuse "it was an honest mistake" to avoid owning up to shoddy practices? Of course they do. But sometimes, it does appear that an honest mistake was made. I have confidence that most of you are able to read between the lines and distinguish the sincere from the insincere.

When the behavior of a business is suspect, I point that out. However, it is not up to Action to bring charges, pass judgment, or tell folks where to shop and what business to use. Those responsibilities belong to the state attorneys, courts and to you, the consumers.

In addition, it is obvious that customers are not always right. When a reader does not disclose all of the facts, or sends us incomplete or even altered information, I report that too. Sometimes the reader has simply done a poor job of being a consumer and then expects Action to fix the problem.

Every so often a business will cave in because of Action's inquiries and make a bad customer happy. While this may be good business practice, it makes us cringe. Irresponsibility and lack of knowledge do not always deserve to be rewarded. And just as there are businesses that do not make customer satisfaction a priority, there are those consumers who can never be satisfied.

When I report the problem and/or response in some detail, I do so because I feel the situation offers information that consumers can relate to and learn from, thus fulfilling the column's role of educating and helping consumers make better decisions.

We are all consumers and most of us can call up a repertoire of aggravating experiences, bureaucratic red tape, dealings with dishonest or unethical businesses, mistakes (on both sides), frustration, misinformation and even downright silliness. The power of the newspaper behind the column can often open the lines of communication and get results when an individual has not succeeded. But even when the outcome is at best an impasse, I think of the column as a forum for airing gripes, sharing insights, passing along information and referring readers to other agencies or avenues for assistance.

I have been told that businesses, especially smaller ones, live in fear of receiving a letter from Action. That's too bad. Appearing in the column does not imply wrongdoing. Often the opposite is the case. I trust that you, the readers, can look at the facts as presented and make up your own minds.

I also rely on you to contribute to this column. I was recently told that information I gave on a Canadian's becoming a U.S. resident was incorrect. The information came directly from the Justice Department's Immigration and Naturalization Service. I thought that was the logical place to turn. I will now revisit that question and dig deeper to find the answer. If the information I was initially given turns out to be wrong, then I will correct it. I, and you, will be wiser for the experience.

Action also serves to answer readers' questions on every subject under the sun. I have fun with those, from finding sources for predator urine to tracking down vaguely remembered names and places.

It is unlikely that the content of the column will always meet with every reader's expectations. Its goal is not merely to entertain and please everyone. Educating consumers while being fair to them and businesses, getting answers and finding information, are. And most of the time, I hope we can have fun in the process.

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. If you have a question, or your own attempts to resolve a consumer complaint have failed, write Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call 893-8171, or outside Pinellas, (800) 333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request.

Requests will be accepted only by mail or voice mail; calls cannot be returned. We will not be responsible for personal documents, so please send only photocopies. If your complaint concerns merchandise ordered by mail, we need copies of both sides of your canceled check.

We may require additional information or prefer to reply by mail; therefore, readers must provide a full mailing address, including ZIP code. Names of letter writers will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

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