By Claudette Carveth
The Department of Consumer Protection last month issued the agency’s annual “Top Ten” list of consumer complaints for the past year as part of Consumer Protection Week. According to a review of more than 5,500 written consumer complaints received in 2014, telecommunications-related complaints led the pack for the first time.
“Avoiding problems in today’s marketplace is a challenge for every consumer, but help and information is available from the Department of Consumer Protection,” said Commissioner Jonathan A. Harris. “Among all the legitimate, fair companies doing business here, there are always a number of bad actors, out to take advantage of the consumer – we deal with them. And, there are honest businesses that go through a difficult stretch, who need a little time and oversight in order to completely fix a problem situation – we work to hold them accountable. During Consumer Protection Week and all year long, the best advice for consumers is to take the time to get well-informed, and encourage others to do the same.”
The following Top Ten categories accounted for 54% of the written complaints in 2014.
- Telecommunications and related (26.8% percent of all) This category was primarily populated with more than 1,400 consumer complaints to the Department about billing and service issues following a transition between providers of U-verse, landline and broadband Internet service last fall. The Department of Consumer Protection provided its consumer hotline and consumer assistance staff to triage consumer complaints and expedite their processing by the new provider.
- Telemarketing (8.2% of all) rose to #2, from third place, where it had been for several years. This category often includes complaints about some entities not currently covered by the Do Not Call law, such as charitable organizations. Certainly, it also includes complaints about businesses that choose to ignore the Do Not Call law. Where a number can be traced to a Connecticut business, the Department enforces the Do Not Call law. However, non-traceable numbers, out of state and out of country numbers are provided to the Federal Trade Commission for enforcement.
- Home improvement/New home (6.5% of all) — Complaints about home improvement contractors and new home builders long held the top complaint category to the Department, but fell to second place in 2013. These complaints involve issues such as unfinished work, improper contracts, damage to home or property, shoddy materials or non-return of deposit. Working with a contractor who is properly registered with the Department of Consumer Protection is a good first step toward avoiding later complaints, as is getting numerous, excellent references. It’s also necessary to get a written, signed, dated and detailed contract that includes a start date, end date and all aspects of the work to be done, including the quality of the materials to be used. The contract should also tell you that you have three business days to cancel the contract.
- Motor Fuel – gasoline (3.4% of all complaints) — Gas pump “jumps,” unclear signage and reports of “bad gas” ranked high in consumers’ fuel-related complaints last year. All were investigated and remedied as needed by the Department.
- General retail (2% of all) – These complaints involve bricks and mortar stores, and generally include problems with refunds, exchanges, lost deposits, warranties, rebates, advertising or service.
- Internet Sales (2% of all) – Problems in this category include non-delivery of items or overcharges, companies that engage in repeat billings, unauthorized charges or ACH withdrawals or companies that do not respond to “opt out” requests from consumers.
- Auto Dealer (1.8% of all) — Issues might include non-delivery of ordered vehicles, over-charges, warranties, rebates, advertising or aggressive sales tactics.
- Electrical trades (1% of all) – The Department also investigates complaints related to the occupations that it regulates. In this category, complaints are about work performed by electricians and electrical journeypersons.
- Heating and Cooling trades (1% of all) – DCP investigates complaints related to the occupations that it regulates. In this category, complaints are about work performed by heating and cooling professionals and journeypersons.
- Mail Order Sales (1% of all) – Problems in the mail-order category include non-delivery of items or overcharges, incomplete orders, wrong merchandise and non-refunds on returned items.
The remaining 46% of written consumer complaints to the Department involved issues ranging from alarm systems to modeling agencies to weight control products.
“The Department of Consumer Protection works every day with all sorts of companies and consumer problems, with the goal of keeping the marketplace fair and safe for everyone,” Harris said. “I’m proud of the work of our Complaint Center staff, and our agents who dedicate their days to solving problems and achieving fairness for consumers in Connecticut.”
The DCP can sometimes provide consumers help in the form of restitution through one of its Guaranty Funds. In 2014, the Department paid out more than $1.9 million in restitution to consumers from its Health Club, Home Improvement, Real Estate and New Home Construction Guaranty Funds.
“Consumers should contact us when they have a problem with a business that they cannot fix themselves,” Harris said. “Filing a written complaint may not only result in possible help for the consumer, but will also alert us to an issue or illegality that is likely to affect other people and needs immediate correction.”
The Department of Consumer Protection’s websites are SmartConsumer.ct.gov and ct.gov/dcp. Written complaints can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. The toll-free consumer helpline number is 1 (800) 842-2649.
This article was written by Claudette Carveth, Director of Communications at the Department of Consumer Protection of the State of Connecticut. To learn more about how the Department of Consumer Protection can help, visit us online at www.ct.gov/dcp.