Two of the most expensive decisions consumers make – buying a car and buying a house – took the top spots of the most complained-about transactions in an annual consumer survey released today, but thanks to some recent high-tech data heists and stolen tax refunds, identity theft is tipping the scales of the fastest growing issue to worry about.
Complaints about purchasing issues and shoddy work on cars and homes helped propel those categories to the top of an annual survey released by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and North American Consumer Protection Investigators (NACPI) of state and local consumer protection officials.
But swiping identities was named the fastest-growing consumer gripe by state and local consumer protection officials in the survey.
Referring to the “epidemic of data breaches” in recent months, Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at CFA, noted the “particularly fast-growing and troublesome” rash of stolen tax refunds. Providing identity theft insurance after the fact is not enough, Grant said.
“What’s needed is to require better security for consumers’ personal information to keep it from being stolen and used in the first place,” she said.
The group’s top 10 consumer complaints in 2014 were:
1. Auto. Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars; “lemons”; faulty repairs; leasing; and towing disputes.
2. Home Improvement/Construction. Shoddy work; failure to start or complete the job.
3. Credit/Debt. Billing and fee disputes; mortgage modifications and mortgage-related fraud; credit repair; debt relief services; predatory lending; illegal or abusive debt collection tactics.
4. (Tie) Retail Sales. False advertising and other deceptive practices; defective merchandise; problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates; failure to deliver; (Tie) Utilities. Service problems or billing disputes with phone, cable, satellite, Internet, electric and gas services.
5. Services. Misrepresentations; shoddy work; failure to have required licenses; failure to perform.
6. Landlord/Tenant. Unhealthy or unsafe conditions; failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities; deposit and rent disputes; illegal eviction tactics.
7. Home Solicitations. Misrepresentations or failure to deliver in door-to-door, telemarketing or mail solicitations; do-not-call violations.
8. (Tie) Health Products/Services. Misleading claims; unlicensed practitioners; failure to deliver; (Tie) Internet Sales. Misrepresentations or other deceptive practices; failure to deliver online purchases.
9. Fraud. Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries, work-at-home schemes, grant offers, fake check scams, imposter scams and other common frauds.
10. Household Goods. Misrepresentations; failure to deliver; faulty repairs in connection with furniture or appliances.
The head of NACPI told ABC News at the group’s annual gathering in Colorado this week that complaints about car sales always rank high.
“Most people need a vehicle and you rely on your vehicle,” said Amber Capoun, president of NACPI. “You as a consumer, you walk in intimidated. You’re making this big purchase and you don’t think you can bargain with them.”
Transactions having to do with housing are similarly ripe for problems. In addition to complaints about home construction and remodeling, consumers report getting scammed by traveling repair crews that zoom in after a big storm and try to grab insurance money without finishing the repairs.
Got a consumer problem? Stephanie Zimmermann, The ABC News Fixer, may be able to help. Click here to submit your problem online. Letters are edited for length and clarity.
CFA also says the new “sharing” economy is creating problems for consumers who aren’t sure who is responsible when a transaction on a ride-sharing or online room-booking service goes sour. Most laws govern business-to-consumer transactions, and the new sharing marketplace can muddle that.
Consumer agencies in the survey pointed to debt collection as one of the most egregious areas, with consumers complaining about fraudsters bothering them for money they don’t even owe in addition to real debt collectors using abusive tactics to collect money on legitimate accounts. Debt collection is a frequent theme in complaints to The ABC News Fixer.
Colorado’s deputy attorney general, Jan Zavislan, told ABC News that Internet fraud also continues to bedevil government agencies because it’s virtually impossible to recoup people’s lost money when scammers are based overseas and cover their tracks with falsified URLs and spoofed phone numbers.
Zavislan added that he never trusts an online business that won’t provide a real world address: “What legitimate business doesn’t want you to know where they are?”
The consumer groups culled complaints from 37 state and local government consumer agencies in 21 states across the country. Those agencies received a total of 281,000 consumer complaints last year and report a total of $123 million saved or recovered for consumers through mediation or enforcement actions. The entire CFA/NACPI report can be viewed here.