Got a consumer complaint? Where can you turn?
Let’s face it. Bad things can happen to all consumers from time to time, whether by accident, by fraud, by neglect or due to many other reasons. When a serious, financially derogatory situation arises in your consumer life, to whom can you turn for help? What help can they give you? Are attorneys and lawsuits your only (or even your best) course of action?
Certainly not! Depending upon who you are, how you were wronged, and who did the alleged harm, there is a number of government and nonprofit resources you can utilize. And more often than not, they are available at no cost to you. Let’s start with the least serious and move toward the more severe cases.
Let’s say that you are not happy with the service you have received from a representative of a business. That business might be a for-profit company (e.g. bank, store, gym, etc.) or a nonprofit organization (e.g. credit union, charity, association, etc.). The company may not have done anything illegal. Perhaps there is a disagreement over what was promised. Or maybe you felt disrespected by an employee. Or possibly your purchase arrived much later than promised.
First stop: When there is a disagreement or a complaint about service, the first place to stop is the company you have the complaint against. Unfortunately, we too often go right for the jugular, figuratively speaking, by threatening or pursuing lawsuits. Instead, a phone call to the company’s customer service department may set things right. If that does not produce a satisfactory solution, ask for the representative’s supervisor. If solutions are still not to your satisfaction, ask for the manager. As you likely know, this is called escalating your complaint. Take it all the way to the president or to the board of directors of the company if you must. Here’s a secret (well, that’s a little extreme, perhaps, but maybe a clue) to know about managers: they don’t generally like dealing with customer complaints. That’s what the representatives and supervisors are for. By the time you reach a manager, the manager will likely just turn back to the supervisor and say, “make it right with the customer.”
Next stop: If, after all that, the company still does not make it right with you, the next stop for your consideration is the Better Business Bureau. In spite of its official-sounding name, the Better Business Bureau is not a government agency of any kind. It is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance trust in the marketplace (i.e. between companies and customers). Think of their service as a rating or a grading system for businesses. Naturally, customers want to do business with a company that has an A rating, rather than one that has an F rating. Just because a company has had a complaint filed against it does not mean that it deserves a poor rating. How they handle that complaint, though, will say a lot about how the company views its customers. If they take care of your complaint in an expeditious manner, their rating is not too poorly affected. If they don’t resolve your complaint satisfactorily, or if they take a long time to resolve it, or if they ignore your complaint altogether, that is when their rating will slip.
Third stop: The next stop to consider before getting government agencies involved might include any trade associations to which the business belongs. Many businesses belong to trade groups that require their members to adhere to best practices, often including specific levels of customer service and satisfaction.
Last stop: The final place for a customer to complain might be to your credit card company if you made the purchase in question using your credit card. Such credit companies must abide by certain guidelines in the Fair Credit Billing Act. If your purchase meets minimum purchase amounts and geographic specifications, you may dispute the charge with the card company. You may also dispute billing errors, whether from the company you made the purchase from, or, of course, if the billing error is with the credit card company itself.
If your complaint has to do with unfair, deceptive or anti-competitive business practices, then the Federal Trade Commission may be your first and last stop. The FTC’s mission is to protect consumers from these illegal or unethical practices. The great thing about the FTC is that they have both the authority and the resources of the federal government to fulfill their mission. If the FTC finds violations or unfair practices among companies it regulates, it may sue the company on behalf of the consumers for violation of a number of laws and regulations. In the case of fraud, the FTC can shut down and even get restitution for US consumers due to telemarketing and debt relief scams, phony healthcare products and services, and fake sweepstakes.
Additionally, if your complaint has to do with financial products and services or financial institutions, you can use the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s consumer complaint tool. A quick review of other consumer complaints listed on the site indicates that most have to do with debt collections, credit repair services, checking accounts, automatic payment problems, and vehicle loan or lease issues. Similar to the Better Business Bureau, the CFPB enables consumers to connect with service providers in order to resolve problems. The CFPB may not act against a company based on a single complaint, but the thinking here is that when enough consumers complain about the same company and/or service or product, the CFPB can step in and sue the company for violating relevant laws. For example, in January 2017, the CFPB sued the largest student loan processor in the country (Navient) for systematically steering its customers away from more affordable income-based repayment plans.
If the complaint involves a financial institution (from banks to credit unions, from payday lenders to title lenders, from mortgage companies to online signature loan lenders, or from debt collectors to vehicle lease companies), contact your state’s department of financial institutions. It may go by the name of the department of finance or department of banking, but it has the responsibility to audit all financial institutions and to enforce related laws.
If the complaint is healthcare related, such as unauthorized charges, check out the Consumers Union for links to government agencies in your state that may be able to help, such as Departments of Insurance.
In the case of consumer fraud, you should consider contacting your state’s consumer protection office. This office might be a consumer protection bureau, or it might be your state’s attorney general. Find a list of your state resources at USA.gov.
The Federal Trade Commission is again a good resource for such situations. Scams and frauds are well within the FTC’s field of services to investigate.
If, after all that, your complaint has not satisfactorily been resolved, or if time is of the essence (e.g. your health is in jeopardy due to poor services), taking private action may be appropriate. As a private action, it is generally the most expensive to take. Whether you hire a mediator or arbitrator first (sometimes this is in the contract you may have signed with the company you are complaining about), or whether you hire an attorney to pursue legal action in court, these are generally the last resort because of the expense and the demand for the consumer’s time to develop the case with the law firm and to be in court. In cases where enough consumers have the same complaint against the same company or a number of companies (e.g. side-effects of a particular medication), the consumers may band together and, instead of filing individual lawsuits, file a single class action lawsuit.