Free Consumer Assistance Offered by Uncle Sam

Your toaster doesn't toast. You mechanic wants more money. Your credit card company just pulled a bait and switch. And a new friend in Nigeria wants your bank account number… Who you gonna call for help?

Here's a little quiz:

A) The Better Business Bureau
B) The government
C) Elisabeth Leamy or another consumer reporter
D) An attorney
E) All of the above

I'm always amazed how many people just try A, the Better Business Bureau. It's not a government agency, as many think. The BBB is a private non-profit that represents consumers AND businesses. It can be very effective, but only if the company you're complaining about cares deeply about its reputation and can be shamed into doing the right thing just so it won't get a demerit on its BBB record. The Better Business Bureau doesn't have the power to force companies to help consumers. It can only exert pressure.

Contacting a consumer reporter like me can work in your favor, but most of us prefer to hear from people after they have first tried steps A and B. That documentation of your efforts makes us take you seriously. It also provides a paper trail that can be key to helping our station or paper to agree to take on your cause.

Choice D, contacting an attorney about your consumer problem, is a toughie. First of all, there aren't that many lawyers who specialize in consumer law. Second, the lawyer's fees are typically more than the amount of money at stake in your dispute, so it's not cost effective. And third, the legal process is long and laborious. Certainly, for large wrongs, this is a great step and some lawyers may even be willing to take your case on contingency. But most consumer complaints don't rise to the level at which an attorney is worthwhile.

So what about B, the government? So few people think to contact their city, county or state for help! I think the problem is that people just don't realize there are government agencies out there at every level that provide FREE consumer advice and assistance. The difficulty is in finding them. Often they have obscure names or are part of weird branches, like the department of agriculture. What's up with that? Even if you contact your elected representative, you may receive a form letter in return instead of a referral to a consumer protection agency that can actually help you.

So I'm here to tell you that they're out there. Many cities, counties and states have broad consumer protection agencies that investigate all sorts of complaints. Every state has an attorney general who takes on consumer cases if enough people are affected. And there are very specific agencies you can also tap that regulate specific businesses such as banks, insurance companies, car dealers and so on. These agencies license those businesses, so filing a complaint against their license can be highly effective.

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