ANNAPOLIS – When consumers put their hard-earned cash on the table they expect a good product or service. They don’t want problems. The more money they spend, the more likely they are to complain about problems with these products or services.
So, it’s no surprise that new and used car purchases, auto repairs and lemon law violations appear in the 1998 top-10 lists of consumer complaints from both the Baltimore Better Business Bureau and the Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General’s Office.
Car complaints top the AG’s list, while runners-up were other big-ticket modern necessities: home improvement and construction, health clubs, health service billing, credit card offers and retail sales.
Health clubs lead the Baltimore Better Business Bureau’s top complaints for 1998. Tracy Bickle, bureau public relations director, said this isn’t a surprise because of the large number of clubs. Auto repair and car dealers rank eighth and ninth respectively on this list.
It’s clear from the high ranking of these categories on both lists that consumers take major purchases and problems with them seriously.
The differences in these lists may be because the bureau is better known and receives three times the complaints the AG’s division does in one year. The way complaints are broken down into categories also affects the ranking, said Rebecca Bowman, assistant attorney general in the Consumer Protection Division.
Every year, the Maryland AG handles more than 10,000 written gripes from Maryland consumers complaining they are victims of unfair business practices. Some of them just want to register their displeasure, said Bowman, others want redress.
There are protections from these problems.
Consumers may contact the Better Business Bureau before a purchase to determine a business’ record, and they can discover the names of member businesses. Member businesses must agree to meet the bureau’s standards of good practices and make an effort to resolve consumer problems.
The AG’s office provides mediation and arbitration to consumers and businesses. In a few cases, depending on the seriousness of the situation, the complaints are turned over to law enforcement.
Bowman said they do not take sides in the mediation. But the office does note whether the dispute is resolved, and in whose favor it is resolved. Both consumer offices will search for complaints on specific businesses.
Complaints against a business, said Bowman, doesn’t necessarily mean that business is at fault.
Other frequent complaints stem from problems with mail orders, furniture purchases, appliance purchases, printing and copying, travel, vanity publishers and landlord/tenant disputes.
Slamming, when your phone company is switched without your permission, and cramming, fake charges that appear on a bill, are two major complaints about the telecommunications industry.
How can you avoid problems in the marketplace? Don’t leave matters to chance, protect yourself, said Bowman.
“Before you make a big purchase, do your homework.”
She said to take your time when making a purchase, ask a lot of questions and get everything in writing. Inquire about service options available after you buy the item. You can check with the Consumer Protection Division or the Better Business Bureau for any complaints recorded against companies you are considering. Save documentation as a basis for any future complaint.
“Communication is important both before you sign the contract and after,” said Bowman.
Consumers should voice complaints immediately and keep good records.
The Better Business Bureau also suggested that when considering auto repairs, vehicle owners should communicate clearly and get promises in writing. It also recommended asking people you trust for referrals, having the service manager explain the repairs and making sure the bill itemizes the parts and repairs, especially if the work is guaranteed.