A California woman ordered two Yorkshire puppies for her grandchildren from Champion Puppy Shop, a purported online retailer in Arkansas. She paid $700—only to be hit up for $950 more in insurance for shipping by a separate company. When she received a request for even more money from the shipper, she contacted the Arkansas attorney general’s office, which couldn’t locate either company at all.
Complaints about sales of all sorts of goods and services online—not just puppies—was the fastest-growing category of customer complaints last year, according to a report by the Consumer Federation of America. For instance, balloon ride reservations that vanish and missing wedding decorations are more examples of bogus online transactions that the public faces with rising frequency.
And there’s a relatively new “gotcha” that consumers now have to be very wary of—crowd-funding money pits. For instance, a clothing company operating in Washington, DC, raised $284,000 via crowd funding to make athletic apparel. After more than two years, the company’s funders had received nothing in return and complained to the District of Columbia’s attorney general’s office. It turned out that at least $112,000 of the money raised by the company had been used for personal expenditures. The case currently is being litigated.
The study highlighting the most common and the fastest-growing consumer complaints should help you know what to look out for so that you don’t become a victim, too.
The second-fastest-growing category of complaints is financial fraud, such as impostor scams (many of which involve phony debts to the IRS or other agencies), according to the CFA, an advocacy group comprised of more than 250 consumer organizations.
The third-fastest-growing category of consumer complaint involves utilities—the cable, gas and electric companies that have long been a source of consumer irritation.
“Unlike most federal agencies, state and local consumer agencies usually attempt to resolve individual complaints,” the CFA wrote in its report. Indeed, the good news is that the state and local agencies recovered more than $2 billion in settling complaints last year.
According to the survey, the 10 most frequent subjects of consumer complaints were automobiles at number one followed by home improvement or construction, retail sales, credit and debit, landlord-tenant disputes, shoddy services, communications, medical, household goods and, in a three-way tie for 10th place, home solicitations such as telemarketing, online sales and travel.
Despite post-financial crisis reforms in the mortgage market, real estate remains a rich source for complaints—and swindles. A company that falsely presented itself as a “faith-based” organization in South Carolina connected eager home sellers seeking relief from mortgage payments with prospective buyers, who entered into rent-to-own agreements. Under the organization’s tutelage, the owners’ home mortgage payments were to be covered by the renters.
Within months, however, the home owners began receiving foreclosure warnings, and the prospective buyers, despite their rental agreements, got eviction notices. The owners of the company pocketed more than $1 million, the CFA said, and have since been indicted for fraud and conspiracy among other charges.
Then there was the case of the couple on a romantic cruise who made the mistake of visiting a jewelry shop recommended by a cruise line employee when they docked at a port of call. The friendly shop clerk had the wife’s jewelry polished, plied the two with cocktails and, when they were soused, sold them a ring for $16,400, promising the pair that if they had they had second thoughts, they could easily return the bauble at the next port of call, where he said the store had another branch.
Sober the next day, the couple recognized the ring’s poor quality, tried to return it and were, of course, rebuffed. Back in the US, local consumer agencies couldn’t help because the transaction had taken place in a foreign country.
Then there’s the case of A New Beginning for Immigrants Rights, Inc., and its president. They were accused of falsely advertising an “ID4ICE” card as a national identification card that protects illegal immigrants from deportation. Of course, it does not. The price: $50 to $200. The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs is seeking $1.3 million in fines.
The takeaway to all this—buyer beware—isn’t new, but it never really seems to sink in with millions of Americans. So let these tales of financial misery be a reminder to you to be very cautious. Read contracts carefully, get promises in writing, do some background research on companies you’ve never heard of. But also remember that if the worst comes to pass, there are dozens of agencies, mostly state and local, that may lend a hand when disputes arise. Your state’s attorney general’s office is one of them and may provide resources for others.