For Immediate Release - March 13, 2012

Home and Auto Issues Dominate Top 5 Consumer Complaints

Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, Attorney General's Office, Better Business Bureau, U.S. Postal Service and Federal Trade Commission Announce Annual Findings

BOSTON - March 13, 2012 - The Patrick-Murray Administration’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation today joined leaders from the Attorney General's Office, Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Postal Service and Better Business Bureau to announce each agency's Top 5 consumer issues of 2011 – and offered strategies for consumers to avoid similar pitfalls in the future.

Automobile issues, including insurance claim denials and dealer and service complaints, along with debt collections and scams, were among the top Massachusetts consumer issues of 2011. During the press conference, agency officials were joined by consumers whose knowledge and attention to detail allowed them to recoup thousands of dollars from unscrupulous businesses.

"Governor Patrick and I want consumers to know that they have rights and they are not at the mercy of the marketplace," said Barbara Anthony, Undersecretary of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation. "Our shared goal is to educate consumers, to give them the power to protect themselves and the tools to find remedies if they are mistreated. It can be very daunting and intimidating for the average person, and we want them to know that we all offer them a place to turn to for help."

Consumer education includes events like today’s announcement and frequent surveys and inspections in the field. Earlier this month, for example, Governor Patrick directed state inspectors to increase inspections of gas stations across the state to guard against potential gas price gouging. Those inspections not only put businesses on notice, but also remind consumers of high-profile issues to be mindful of in the marketplace.

The top issue for consumers contacting the Office of Consumer Affairs and its agencies in 2011 was auto insurance-related questions and complaints. More than 8,300 people contacted the Office of Consumer Affairs and the Division of Insurance with questions regarding denial of claims, adjusters, claim delays and more.

Nearly 6,500 people called the Office of Consumer Affairs and Division of Insurance about health insurance issues, the second-highest number of 2011. Consumer Affairs also fielded more than 3,200 complaints regarding Home Improvement Contractors (third-most) and the Division of Insurance received 2,300 complaints about home insurance (fifth-most).

The fourth highest number of complaints received – 2,939 – related to automobiles and the Lemon Law. One of those callers, Ellen Stryd of Everett, recovered the entire purchase price of her daughter’s inoperable used car through arbitration arranged by Consumer Affairs.

"We were able to get more than $9,000 back because we were walked through the process by your staff," said Stryd, who spoke at today’s press conference. "I tend to write everything down, but your people gave me the right questions to ask and the right way to go to arbitration."

Homeowner Robert MacKerron of Watertown received $10,000 from the Home Improvement Guaranty Fund after an arbitrator ruled against a Hopkinton contractor. The contractor refused to finish the job, and what work was performed was substandard.

"After he just disappeared on me I went to the Better Business Bureau, who connected me with Consumer Affairs," MacKerron said. "I was happy to get a ruling against him and some money back."

The other agencies at today’s press conference found that consumers continue to face challenges from large and small businesses as well as from con artists and criminals. From identify theft to fake lotteries to foreclosure scams, consumers face a litany of hazards.

The Office of Attorney General Martha Coakley continues to focus significant resources on mortgage lending issues and foreclosure prevention. The Attorney General's Office also warns against several practices designed to take advantage of consumers in financial straits – including foreclosure rescue schemes and phony investment, lending, and employment opportunities.

The hallmarks of these scams are unsolicited offers, through emails or telephone calls. Fraudulent foreclosure rescuers will promise results and guarantee to lower your monthly mortgage payment by one-half or more. The law prohibits upfront fees for attempting to help a homeowner obtain a mortgage loan modification, so if you are asked to pay an upfront fee, that is a sign you are not dealing with a reputable provider. Fraudulent solicitors ask for money for "can't miss" investments, ask for application fees for guaranteed loans, or send fake checks to enlist consumers as "mystery shoppers," who are asked to wire funds back to the scammer.

 "While our economy is slowly rebounding, Massachusetts families continue to watch their budgets, and no one can afford to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous merchants," said Attorney General Martha Coakley. "Consumers can protect their money and their personal information by avoiding deals that sound too good to be true. Consumers should always do their homework, shop around, make sure that they are dealing with a reputable entity, and consider all of the terms before entering into any contract."

The Attorney General Office's hotline number is (617) 727-8400. Consumers who are having a problem with an insurance company are encouraged to call the Attorney General's Insurance Hotline at 1-888-830-6277.

The Federal Trade Commission keeps track of the number of consumer calls received annually, and creates state-by-state data of the complaints. Massachusetts consumers complained most frequently about identity theft, abusive debt collection practices, shop-at-home and catalog sales and fraudulent sweepstakes and lotteries. The FTC is the nation's consumer protection agency and works to stop these types of problems through vigorous law enforcement and consumer education.

"Imposter scams are particularly insidious because they often prey on consumers’ emotional response to hearing that their loved ones may be in trouble," said Leonard L. Gordon, Director of the FTC’s Northeast Region. "These scammers also tend to know no bounds when it comes to their efforts to convince consumers to hand over their cash, whether it’s targeting seniors claiming to be grandchildren stranded in a foreign country or someone looking for a connection on an online dating site."

Consumers can obtain information about how to educate themselves by going to the FTC's website, www.ftc.gov. Complaints about consumer issues can be filed with the FTC at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov.

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service cautioned consumers that lottery and sweepstakes fraud – their number one complaint – costs Americans millions every year. Consumers also complained most frequently about fake checks, work-at-home offers, telemarketing fraud and international scams.

"When one family member is harmed, the impact can be felt by all. Losses can be monumental; entire fortunes, inheritances, and retirement security can be wiped-out," United States Postal Inspector Bernadette Lundbohm said. "Most, if not all, foreign lottery come-ons sent to U.S. addresses through the mail are bogus and illegal. They don’t come from foreign government agencies or licensees. Instead, they come from con artists who take your money and give you nothing in return. Unfortunately, older citizens are most frequently victimized in foreign lottery scams."

The Postal Inspection Service recommends all consumers learn how to protect themselves and loved ones from this and other types of fraud at their dedicated fraud prevention website, www.deliveringtrust.com.

The Better Business Bureau serving Eastern Massachusetts had a variety of top complaints from Bay State consumers in 2011. Banking issues were the most common, followed by clothing, new car dealers, collection agencies and used car dealers.

In 2011, BBB saw a significant increase in the number of complaints against banks. BBB urges consumers to do their research and read the fine print before joining a bank or opening an account. Remember, consumers can check out a business first at boston.bbb.org.
 

The BBB of Eastern Massachusetts can be reached by calling (508) 652-4800.

Top Five Consumer Issues & Complaints of 2011

Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation

  1. Auto Insurance
  2. Health Insurance
  3. Home Improvement Contractors
  4. Lemon Law
  5. Home Insurance

Office of the Attorney General

  1. Foreclosure Relief Scams
  2. Identity Theft
  3. High-Pressure Sales Pitches
  4. Home Improvement Contractors
  5. False Introductory Offers

U.S. Postal Inspection Service

  1. Foreign Lottery Scams
  2. Fake Checks
  3. Work-at-Home Scams
  4. Telemarketing Fraud
  5. Cross-Border Fraud

Federal Trade Commission

Complaints from Massachusetts Consumers

  1. Identity Theft
  2. Debt Collection
  3. Shop-at-Home and Catalog Sales
  4. Prizes, Sweepstakes and Lotteries
  5. Banks and Lenders

Better Business Bureau (BBB)

  1. Banks
  2. Clothing
  3. New Car Dealers
  4. Collection Agencies
  5. Used Car Dealers

For more information on these and other issues, visit the agencies at their websites, and follow them on Twitter:

Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation: www.mass.gov/consumer (and onTwitter @Mass Consumer)

Attorney General’s Office: www.mass.gov/ago (and on Twitter @MassAGO)

Better Business Bureau: www.boston.bbb.org (and on Twitter @BostonBBB)

Federal Trade Commission: www.ftc.gov.

United States Postal Inspection Service: https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov/

CONTACTS:

Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs, Dan Rosenfeld
(617) 973-8767

Attorney General's Office, Melissa Karpinsky
(617) 727-2200

Federal Trade Commission, Nur-ul Haq, Esq.

(212) 607-2806

U.S. Postal Inspections Service, Bernadette Lundbohm, CPP, Postal Inspector-Public Information Officer, Boston Division

(617) 556-4489

Better Business Bureau, Paula Fleming

(508) 652-4855