Pandemic-related problems are among the top 10 complaints made to state and local consumer agencies in 2020, according to an annual survey by Consumer Federation of America. They also topped the lists of worst, fastest-growing, and new complaints.
“COVID-19 generated complaints about everything from appliance repairs to childcare, trash pick-up to towing,” said Susan Grant, CFA’s director of consumer protection and privacy.
Business closings, job lay-offs, supply chain disruptions, social-distancing requirements, and travel restrictions put huge strains on consumers and businesses, as the survey shows, Grant said.
State and local consumer agencies also dealt with a huge number of complaints last year about price-gouging and pandemic-related scams.
Thirty-four city, county and state consumer agencies from 18 states participated in the survey, which asked about the complaints they received last year, their biggest achievements, and new consumer protection laws enacted in their jurisdictions.
Top 10 complaints in 2020
- Auto: Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, deceptive financing practices, defective vehicles, faulty repairs, car leasing and rentals, towing disputes.
- Home improvement/construction: Shoddy work, failure to start or complete the job, failure to have required licensing or registration.
- Landlord/tenant: Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities, deposit and rent disputes, illegal eviction tactics.
- Credit/debt: Billing and fee disputes, mortgage problems, credit repair and debt relief services, predatory lending, illegal or abusive debt collection tactics.
- Services: Misrepresentations, shoddy work, failure to have required licensing or registration, nonperformance.
- Utilities: Complaints about gas, electric, water, and cable billing and service.
- Retail Sales: False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, failure to deliver.
- Travel: Misrepresentations about cost, amenities or other parts of travel packages, failure to provide promised services, disputes about refunds.
- (Tie) Health products/services: Misleading claims, unlicensed practitioners, failure to deliver, billing issues. Internet Sales: Misrepresentations or other deceptive practices, failure to deliver online purchases.
- (Tie) Pandemic: Price gouging, refunds for canceled events and travel, financial issues, problems getting repairs and other services, “self-help” evictions, scams, and other complaints stemming from the pandemic. Fraud: Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries, work-at-home schemes, grant offers, fake check scams, imposter scams and other common frauds. Household Goods: Misrepresentations, failure to deliver, repair issues in connection with furniture and major appliances.
The ranking is based on the categories that appeared most frequently in the consumer agencies’ “top 10” complaint lists. The 34 agencies that participated in the survey handled 280,413 complaints and recovered or saved more than $262,973,073 or consumers in 2020 through informal mediation, administrative action, and lawsuits.
COVID-19 also significantly changed the way state and local consumer agencies operated. Most had to switch to working entirely remotely. Some agencies provided staff with cell phones and laptops and set up secure systems to enable them to work entirely from home. Others sent small numbers of personnel into their offices on a rotating basis to handle the phones and mail.
“State and local consumer agencies had to turn on a dime to change how they worked,” said Grant.
Examples of pandemic complaints
- Wedding fireworks fizzled. A young couple had planned a river boat fireworks cruise as part of their wedding. Because public gatherings were restricted to 10 people and they had invited 60, they asked to cancel the cruise. The business refused to cancel without penalty. The couple were given a choice of losing 25 percent of their deposit if they canceled by a certain date or 100 percent if they waited longer to cancel. With the help of the District of Columbia Attorney General’s Office, they were able to obtain a full refund of $1,750.
- Landlord goes too far. After a landlord allegedly used physical violence against one tenant and attempted to have another tenant deported by ICE to remove them from their apartments, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office went to court to seek emergency injunctive relief to protect the tenants and witnesses in the case from any further harassment.
- Gym member gets exercised. When a gym closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic, a customer was told he could freeze his membership so he wouldn’t be charged. However, he was charged $43.14 for the month of June. When he took it up with the gym, he was offered a 50 percent credit instead of a full refund. In disgust, he canceled his membership and was charged a fee for doing so. The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office got his money back.
The “Pandemic Complaints” section of CFA’s survey report provides other examples of covid-related complaints. There are Ten Tips for Navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic (and Other Disasters) in the report.