When Curtis Hathaway, a 17-year-old Spokane resident, opened the Christmas gift his mother bought for him, he was ecstatic.
Little did he know that his new “jump suit” - a fashionably baggy jacket and matching pants - would turn into shreds after one spin through the washing machine.
“I didn’t use bleach or anything; it wasn’t my fault,” he said. “It was all shredded up. I felt totally ripped off.”
Hathaway didn’t take his tattered duds back to Costco, where his mom purchased the outfit, because he didn’t have a receipt. Worse, his mother paid cash, so he couldn’t fall back on a credit card billing statement as proof of purchase.
But even if his mom had kept the receipt and had given it to him, he admitted he wouldn’t know to whom he should complain.
“I don’t have the faintest clue. I feel totally helpless, like I really can’t do anything about it,” Hathaway said.
Hathaway’s dilemma is typical: Many consumers know little about how to pursue a complaint against a business.
This makes them susceptible to a growing number of fly-by-night consumer watchdog agencies that promise much more than they can deliver. Some agencies are outright fraudulent, staffed by one or two people out of a spare bedroom and collecting “membership dues” out of a post office box mailing address.
But consumers - especially those who are too timid to confront store owners or salespeople in person - often believe agencies’ promises.
And many consumers who feel they’ve been ripped off have unrealistic expectations about what consumer advocates can accomplish.
All of this puts a strain on legitimate groups such as the Better Business Bureau and the Center for the Study of Responsive Law. Both groups get callers who categorically demand refunds and returns, even when it’s clearly the consumer’s fault.
“I get calls all the time from individuals who need legal advice or a lawyer, and I always have to tell them, ‘Go get an attorney,”’ said Hayden Roberts, office manager for the 27-year-old non-profit Center for the Study of Responsive Law in Washington, D.C.
One test to apply when looking for a dependable consumer agency is longevity. Does the agency have a history of reliability?
Almost half of the consumer watchdog groups listed in the 1993 Encyclopedia of Associations are out of business today, their phones sometimes answered by irate residents who inherited old numbers.
“If they lose funding or run out of money, they just close down. Groups go belly-up all the time,” Roberts said.
Established consumer advocacy groups say fraudulent consumer watchdog groups are uncommon but something consumers should guard against nonetheless.
“They can rip you off if you have to pay for membership or publications that don’t offer advice or are never delivered,” Roberts said.
Especially worrisome are “front companies” funded by businesses that surreptitiously advance corporate agendas, or illegitimate agencies that ask for money in exchange for advice or a worthless newsletter.
“These front groups try to gain legitimacy with nice-sounding environmental and consumer-friendly names,” said Ralph Nader in a telephone interview. Nader, founder of dozens of consumer watchdog groups, is the crusader often credited with creating the consumer rights movement in the United States.
“It’s very hard for consumers to know a front company because the name sounds right. But they have only three or four people working there and they’re funded by corporate contributions or trade organizations,” Nader said.
Although front companies are uncommon, the tobacco industry has several ostensibly objective “research” groups, Nader said. Actually, these groups lobby for the tobacco industry in Washington, D.C.; they allege that smoking and cancer are not definitively linked.
Other groups have no ties to national organizations, research institutions or legal counsel, so they’re minimally effective, Nader said.
Some are just plain wacky, staffed by concerned eccentrics offering advice on how to cook chicken soup, treat herpes and redecorate your bathroom, all in the same phone call.
Take the Fran Lee Foundation, fo example.
Fran Lee, an 84-year-old retired actress in New York City, set up the foundation 40 years ago. Its primary accomplishment seems to be having spread her name across the globe.
She staffs a consumer hot line to disseminate information about virtually everything - from AIDS to cyclamates to humidifiers.
She has appeared in public service announcements in 150 countries, and she’s known as “Mrs. Fix-It” for her ability to create evening wear by crocheting yarn around plastic beer can holders, she said in a phone interview.
“I talk about everything from how you make the best chicken soup with a pressure cooker, to whether condoms are safe,” said Lee, who received 30 calls one day last week.
When asked what she could do for slighted consumers like Hathaway and others, Lee said she couldn’t do much except offer advice for their next purchase.
“They have to do their homework!” she shouted, sounding more like a schoolteacher than a consumer advocate.
Established groups say the problem is not necessarily that watchdog groups are ineffectual, although that sometimes happens.
Another problem lies with consumers, who often have unrealistic expectations of what agencies can do.
“Most consumer groups do not function as legal counsel. We help to publicize class-action lawsuits, and we’re more often like a public relations or lobbying group,” he said.
For most consumer complaints, an organized file of receipts and warranties is the primary weapon in dispute resolution. Never throw away a receipt, and get everything - from legal bills to lawn mowing services - in writing.
It’s also mandatory to learn the “art of effective complaining” so that if you have a problem you won’t be perceived as overly emotional or wimpy when you confront a manager, according to Nader’s book “The Frugal Shopper.”
If it’s too late for prevention, the Better Business Bureau of the Inland Northwest might be able to help. The bureau solves about 75 percent of disputes it oversees between buyers and sellers, said President Lisa Stephens.
Often, a mere phone call from the Better Business Bureau entices store owners to honor consumer requests. If that fails, the bureau asks both parties to submit letters detailing the transaction and reasons for the consumer’s dissatisfaction.
“Usually the owner is just as eager to resolve the dispute as the consumer,” Stephens said.
“If you’ve talked and that doesn’t work, we screen the complaint and ask the customer to put it in writing. Then we send it to the company and ask for their side of the dispute or an adjustment,” she said.
If the bureau cannot solve the dispute, it may send the parties to an impartial arbitrator who renders a binding resolution.
The bureau, which is supported entirely by membership dues from businesses in the local chapter’s zone, offers its mediation services at no cost. Although corporations support the agency, Stephens emphasized that the bureau is an impartial third party for consumers.
The bureau’s most resolvable disputes involve refunds or repair services on products from local companies. The least resolvable disputes - those the bureau will not accept in the first place - are disputes involving unions, firings, discrimination or harassment.
“We would refer you to the Human Rights Commission for that,” Stephens said. She added that the bureau has a referral index of more than 200 agencies in North Idaho and Eastern Washington that might be able to resolve the dispute if the bureau cannot.
Despite its 75 percent success rate, the bureau often goes unnoticed when consumers have gripes. Many slighted customers write off the expense because they feel helpless or are just plain lazy. Many don’t want to admit they’ve been had.
“I feel bad because it was a gift and it’s ruined,” Hathaway said of his shredded jump suit.
“I feel bad for my mom.”
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