So we like to complain. What else is new? No, really — what’s new? A consumer watchdog group just released a study about the biggest and baddest complaints fielded by various investigative agencies last year. There are some perennial gripes: Sleazy car dealers, for instance, seem to be the cockroaches of commerce — you just can’t stamp out every single one. But in 2011, scammers also busted out some slick new tricks that you might, unfortunately, be familiar with.
The Consumer Federation of America canvassed more than three dozen city, county and state consumer protection agencies, which collectively gathered nearly 300,000 complaints last year, to compile its annual list of the Nation’s Top Ten Consumer Complaints. The results fall into a few categories:
As in previous studies, complaints about cars — sales and leasing, marketing, repairs and towing disputes — topped the list as the most common category of gripes. One man in Florida, for instance, bought a used car that made his son sick because it smelled horribly of mold. The dealer refused to let the man return the vehicle. Meanwhile, there were nine incidents also reported in Florida (what’s up with Florida?) of consumers complaining that a seller on Craigslist took their money but never delivered the used car as agreed upon.
Coming in second place for the previous three years are credit and debt issues. In one particular abusive debt collection instance, a woman in Virginia says a debt collector harassed her repeatedly for a debt she knew nothing about — and even threatened the woman by mentioning he knew when her child came home from school. Another debt collection grievance involved what’s called a “sewer service,” in which a collection company wins a judgement in court against a person because the agency never notified the individual about the hearing in the first place. There were also reports unauthorized withdrawls from victims’ bank accounts performed by debt collectors.
Consumer protection agencies said the fastest-growing complaints they fielded in 2011 pertained to fraud, debt collection abuses, do-not-call violations, mortgage-related problems, and home improvement scams. These kinds of disputes and crimes have the dubious distinction of being long-time front-runners, but regulators also flagged several new complaints that are escalating at a rapid clip and are perpetrated in increasingly brazen ways. Car repossessions and computer sales issues emerged among the “hottest” new headaches for consumers and regulators alike. Other fast-growing problems include complaints about with utility service “bundles” and fraudulent rentals of foreclosed property.
The prolonged real estate slump, meanwhile, seems to have helped non-mortgage real estate complaints crack the top 10 categories of complaints for the first time. Fake timeshare resellers, along with bogus companies that promise to recover money lost to fraudulent resellers, preyed on owners desperate to sell their units. The rising number of older seniors and aging baby boomers has apparently attracted a bumper crop of scams pertaining to retirement home and assisted living facilities.
Internet sales and fraud complaints both climbed up the list this year too. The two often go hand-in-hand, with at least some of the schemes and scams for sweepstakes and lotteries, work-at-home jobs, fake checks and the like finding their victims via phishing or other online methods. More criminals today are using the openness and anonymity of the Internet to misrepresent the characteristics, condition, or cost of items for sale. Brazen crimes in which the perpetrators take victims’ money and fail to deliver anything at all also proliferated. In online sales, one new tactic that raised particular concern is the “penny auction.” These sales promise too-good-to-be-true prices on hot items like electronics, but the catch is that participants are charged just for the privilege of bidding, and the result is that “winners” often overpay for items, while everyone else pays without getting anything at all.
Weirdest and Worst Complaints
When asked to list their worst overall complaints, based on the dollar amount involved, vulnerability of the consumers involved, and other factors, the agencies named a wide variety of subjects, including “Do Not Call” violations, payday loans, and funeral-related services. The growing use of prepaid debit cards has led scam artists to exploit this form of untraceable plastic to steal from unsuspecting people. The survey highlighted cases in which people were told to buy a prepaid card or a product designed to load funds onto a card, then provide the PIN, serial numbers or other authentication to allegedly settle a debt or claim a prize. In reality, the end result was that the crook would drain the funds and leave the victim with no money and, often, no recourse.
One line of complaints that qualifies among both the weirdest and worst involved bed bugs. “Bed bugs appear to be a growing problem in rental units,” the report states, “and some agencies began to get complaints last year from tenants whose landlords were refusing to eradicate these infestations.” Amazingly, some landlords in Pennsylvania have begun sneaking clauses into leases requiring tenants to chip in for a portion of the costs of exterminating bed bugs.