Problems with solar energy sales and used car leasing were flagged as issues to watch in the latest report from the annual consumer agency survey conducted by Consumer Federation of America and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators.
Thirty-nine state and local consumer protection agencies from 23 states participated in the survey, which asked about the most common complaints they received in 2016, the fastest-growing complaints, the worst complaints, new kinds of consumer problems, agencies’ biggest achievements and challenges, and new laws that are needed to better protect consumers.
Complaints about solar energy sales were cited as a new consumer problem that could increase in the future as the industry grows.
“Solar energy is good for the environment and for consumers’ pocketbooks, but there are starting to be complaints concerning misleading sales practices, confusing contracts, and shoddy installation” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the federation. “Consumers should check out the company and make sure they understand the terms of the agreement before they sign on the dotted line for solar contracts.”
Another new problem is used car leasing. This may be an attractive option for some consumers because little or no down payment is required and the monthly payments are low. The interest rates may be high, however, and state lemon laws and other consumer protections may not apply to these transactions.
“Consumers who lease used cars may be stuck with lemons or be on the hook for costly repairs,” said Grant.
Though it wasn’t in the top 10 complaints, fraud topped the list of both the fastest-growing and worst complaints.
“Imposter scams are still prevalent,” said Amber Capoun, NACPI president and a legal assistant in the Office of the State Banking Commission in Kansas. “As a state employee, I’m particularly perturbed about fraudsters who pretend to be from the government and use scare tactics, or promises of grants or unclaimed funds, to get people to send them money.”
Some agencies also reported a new trend in scammers requesting payment via store gift cards. “Crooks are looking for ways to get cash fast and avoid being traced,” Capoun said. “Gift cards should only be used to buy something for you or someone you know, not to send payments to strangers.”
Top 10 complaints in 2016
The top complaints were those most frequently cited by the agencies as the most common complaints they received last year. In parenthesis are the positions in top 10 complaints last year:
- Auto. (1) Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing, and towing disputes.
- Home improvement/construction. (2) Shoddy work and failure to start or complete the job.
- Utilities. (3) Installation issues, service problems, and billing disputes with phone, cable, satellite, internet, electric, and gas service.
- Retail sales. (5) False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards, and gift certificates, and failure to deliver.
- Credit/debt. (4) Billing and fee disputes, mortgage modifications and mortgage-related fraud, credit repair, debt relief services, predatory lending, and illegal or abusive debt collection tactics.
- Health products/services. (9) Misleading claims, unlicensed practitioners, failure to deliver, and medical billing issues.
- Services (6) Misrepresentations, shoddy work, failure to have required licenses, and failure to perform.
- Tie: Landlord/tenant. (7) Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities, deposit and rent disputes, and illegal eviction tactics; Household goods. (8) Misrepresentations, failure to deliver, and faulty repairs in connection with furniture or appliances.
- Internet sales. (10) Misrepresentations or other deceptive practices and failure to deliver online purchases.
- Home Solicitations. (Not in top 10 last year.) Misrepresentations, abusive sales practices, failure to deliver in door-to-door, telemarketing, or mail solicitations, and do-not-call violations.
Blocking illegal robocalls and other new laws needed
When asked what new laws are needed to better protect consumers, some agencies suggested that telephone companies should be required to do more to block illegal robocalls and other scam calls.
The Federal Communications Commission has proposed rules which would allow phone companies to block calls in certain cases where the Caller ID appears to be spoofed. The industry Robocall Task Force is working on detecting and blocking illegal robocalls, and individual carriers are providing customers with advice and new tools. For more information go here.
The federation has joined other groups in calling for the FCC to go further to allow phone companies to block spoofed calls and illegal or unwanted robocalls, with consumers’ consent. Additional ideas for new consumer protection laws are outlined in the report.
To read the report, which also describes the consumer agencies’ biggest achievements and challenges and provides tips for how consumers can protect themselves, click here.