Creative Consumer: Watchdogs Who Can Help You

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In the past few days I've interviewed the Illinois Attorney General and a top executive with the Better Business Bureau, and the two meetings reminded me that consumers don't usually know where to turn for help when they've been wronged.

In this tricky economy, it seems like a good time to remind you all that there is free help available from government watchdogs. After all, to most people "recession" is a bad word, but to con artists it's an opportunity.

Desperate people are more likely to fall for illegal advance fee loan scams, foreclosure rescue fraud and abusive debt collection — just to name a few practices — in times like this.

Click Here to Ask Elisabeth Your Consumer Questions About This Topic or Any Other Consumer Issue

First things first. Most people believe the Better Business Bureau is a government agency. No. That is one of the most persistent consumer myths and one that drives me crazy.

The BBB is a very helpful organization, but let's be clear: it is a private group that serves both consumers and businesses. The BBB can sometimes embarrass businesses into doing the right thing, but it does not have the power to make them change their ways.

If you can keep your righteous indignation going long enough to find the government watchdog that has authority over the business you're mad at, you improve your chances of seeing justice done. Ok, so maybe the Rolling Stones told you "you can't get no satisfaction." I prefer the Jimmy Cliff song: "You can get it if you really want. But you must try. Try and try."

Sometimes you do have to "try and try" to find the one government agency that can help you. Finding the one government bureaucrat at that government agency who can help you is even harder.

Here's what I suggest. Start by finding out whether your city or county has a consumer protection office. It could be part of the Department of Housing, Fair Housing, Licensing, Regulation or some other bizarre, irrational and unpredictable government umbrella agency. An online search should unearth this secret. If you have trouble finding it, contact your city or county representative and ask. Not all local governments have the budget for consumer protection. If yours does, consider yourself lucky. Contact the local department and ask for help with your dispute.

Provide details — in writing — and copies of any paperwork you have. Also ask whether there are additional, more specific agencies you can contact for help. More on that in a moment.

If your city or county does not have a consumer protection office, then you'll have to search at the state level. State consumer protection usually falls under the attorney general or the department of agriculture, but not always. Once again, go online, or skip straight to the governor's office, which should be able to tell you which state agency looks out for consumers.

You may be able to file a general consumer complaint in your home state and also the state where the business is based. But don't stop there. Ask whether the business you're complaining about is regulated by any other more specific state agencies.

Here are some examples: The department of motor vehicles may license car dealers. The insurance commission has authority over insurance companies. The licensing board could oversee contractors. The public utilities commission regulates power companies. The state comptroller might have power over stockbrokers. The list goes on.

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