HARTFORD — The Department of Consumer Protection has issued its annual Top Ten list of consumer complaints for the past year.
According to a review of more than 6,000 written consumer complaints received in 2013, home improvement complaints took a back seat to fuel-related complaints for the first time, while telemarketing, retail, and Internet complaints, real estate, and auto dealer complaints remained stable.
Business closures led to increased complaints in some areas.
The department received a total of 6,008 written complaints in 2013, while the number of phoned-in complaints and questions numbered in the tens of thousands. The following Top Ten categories accounted for nearly 60 percent of the written complaints in 2013.
1. Fuel including gasoline, propane, oil (17.5 percent of all complaints).
The sudden closure of a home heating oil delivery company earlier last year helped to fuel a spike in consumer complaints involving fuel and fuel related categories. Gas pump “jumps,” bad or short firewood, gas pump signage, and propane delivery were topics described in consumers’ complaints last year.
All were investigated and remedied as possible by the department. The agency is proposing legislation this year to further improve consumer protections under prepaid fuel contracts.
2. Home improvement/new home (14.5 percent).
Up slightly from 2012, complaints about home improvement contractors and new home builders are common and typically involve issues such as unfinished work, improper contracts, damage to home or property, shoddy materials, nonreturn of deposit.
Working with a contractor who is properly registered with the Department of Consumer Protection is crucial, as is getting numerous, excellent references and a written, signed, dated, and detailed contract that includes a start date, end date, and all aspects of the work to be done, including the quality of the materials to be used. The contract should also tell you that you have three business days to cancel the contract.
3. Telemarketing (7.6 percent) holds its spot at #3, where it has been for several years. This category often includes complaints about some entities not currently covered by the Do Not Call law; it also includes complaints about numerous businesses flouting the Do Not Call law.
Where a number can be traced to a Connecticut business, the Department enforces the Do Not Call law. However, nontraceable numbers, out of state, and out of country numbers are provided to the Federal Trade Commission for enforcement.
4. General retail (5 percent).
These complaints involve brick and mortar stores, and generally include problems with refunds, exchanges, warranties, rebates, advertising, or service.
5. Occupational trades (3.6 percent).
The department also investigates complaints related to the occupations that it regulates. In this category, complaints are about work performed by tradespersons such as plumbers, electricians, home inspectors, well drillers, heating and cooling contractors, and others.
6. Real estate (3.3).
The Department of Consumer Protection licenses and regulates real estate salespersons, brokers and appraisers, and it also responds to consumer complaints about contract errors, misleading advertising, buyer/seller agreement violations, alleged fraud, and property valuation.
7. Restaurant (2.3 percent).
In 2013, closures led to a spike in restaurant complaints; usually not a major category for the department. A major wedding reception facility in the Hartford area closed, leaving brides-to-be without their deposits or a venue for their reception. Smaller restaurant closings and consumers’ subsequent loss of gift card value also contributed to a higher than normal complaint tally in 2013.
8. Internet sales (2 percent).
Problems might include nondelivery of items or overcharges, companies that engage in repeat billings, unauthorized charges or ACH withdrawals, or companies that do not respond to “opt out” requests from consumers.
9. Auto dealer (1.8 percent).
Issues might include nondelivery of ordered vehicles, overcharges, warranties, rebates, advertising, or aggressive sales tactics.
10. Debt collection (less than 1 percent).
Consumers report harassing behavior on the part of debt collectors. Sometimes consumers complain that they will not pay the debt for a service or product that does not work.
Anyone who has a problem with something that they owe payments on must complain to the original seller about the problem, not to the debt collection agency.
Consumers should know their rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which states when and how debt collectors may contact them. Debt collectors are not allowed to be abusive, nor threaten any action that they cannot or will not reasonably undertake. Consumers have the right to dispute a debt in writing.
“Prevention of these problems is the best medicine,” Consumer Protection Commissioner William M. Rubenstein said. “We realize that sometimes even the most carefully planned and researched home improvement job will not go well, and we know that unforeseen business closings leave consumers in the lurch — we do our best to respond to those hard cases.
“We also recognize that there are some pretty shady companies and scammers out there, and whenever we identify them, we go after them legally and criminally where appropriate,” he added. “Overall, however, the well-informed consumer is going to suffer fewer problems.”
The agency’s information website, SmartConsumer.ct.org, offers guidance about many types of fraud and fraud prevention strategies. The main website, ct.gov/dcp, covers all kinds of marketplace issues, including important guidelines and tips for choosing a heating fuel dealer and working with a home improvement contractor.
The agency’s complaint procedures are also featured on that website.
“Consumers should contact us whenever they have a problem with a business that they cannot remedy themselves,” Mr Rubenstein said. “Filing a written complaint not only will result in possible help for the consumer, but will also alert us to an issue or illegality that is likely to affect many other people, and needs immediate correction.”
The department can sometimes provide consumers help in the form of restitution through one of its Guaranty Funds. In 2013, the department paid out more than $2.27 million in restitution to consumers from its Health Club, Home Improvement, Real Estate and New Home Construction guaranty funds.
The toll-free consumer helpline number is 800-842-2649.