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Consumer Headaches: 15 ways to get help

My two-month-long fight with Qwest, which barring a stroke of luck will no doubt go on a lot longer, would have been lost early on if I were not adept at writing the dear-sir-you-cur letter (more about which in a later post) and experienced with tracking down corporate executives and agencies that regulate commerce.

Consumers have more resources than you would think—and certainly more than outfits like Qwest think you will find out about. Qwest is the worst I’ve ever dealt with: combatting serious problems that might damage your credit rating or cost you big bucks requires you to roll out the big guns—state and federal regulatory agencies, attorneys general, and possibly even a paid lawyer of your own. But for smaller fry, there are easier ways.

Consumer protection resources fall into two groups: those you can and should take advantage of before you do business with a retailer, contractor, or service provider, and those to whom you have recourse after you’ve had a negative experience. Here are a few worth knowing about:

Before the Fact

The Better Business Bureau.I’ve never found a complaint to the BBB effective after the fact, but it’s a place to check before you do business with a chosen company or contractor. Though the group doesn’t seem to do much about complaints, it does at least keep a record and will let you know the company’s history.

Your state’s registrar of contractors. This is a very powerful resource. States regulate a wide variety of contractors, and in doing so they gather consumer complaints. Before hiring a contractor, get his or her contractor’s license number, call the state agency, and find out what complaints have occurred and how they were resolved. Some states turn filing a complaint into a major hassle; that means that if the agency shows a complaint record, the incidents in questionprobablywere serious.

The Consumerist. Simply enter the name of the product or the company you’re considering into this site’s “search” box and all sorts of enlightening reports will come up. This is where I learned that Qwest had pulled the “let us give you a cheaper package” scam on other customers. This site is so useful it’s worth bookmarking and revisiting regularly. This site also lists the names and addresses of many high-ranking corporate executives. Thanks to The Consumerist, I finally tracked down Mr. Ed Mueller, Qwest’s well-hidden chairman and CEO.

The RipOff Report. Unlike the Consumerist, which carries a fair number of positive reviews, the Ripoff Report consists mostly of angry complaints. Some of these must be taken with a grain of salt. It’s useful, however, simply to compare the volume of complaints registered for two similar companies. Also, if the same issue appears over and over again, that should tell you something.

Consumer Reports. This site supplements the print magazine, and unfortunately you have to subscribe to get much value from it. But it does have a few free features. By and large, Consumer Reports reviews are more useful when they address things mechanical or electronic rather than in matters of taste.

Google. Enter [“name of product or service”] and “consumer reviews” with each word string inside quotation marks. This will usually bring up several sites, some more useful than others, where people hold forth about their experiences with services and stuff.

After the Fact

Get Human. This excellent resource lists strategies to reach live human beings at companies and organizations whose representatives barricade themselves behind telephone punch-a-button labyrinths. Bookmark it!

Corporate headquarters: This link offers some leads. Also you canGoogle the company name + headquarters, or try The Consumerist. Don’t be shy about going straight to the head of the company.

State attorneys general. Few companies relish an inquiry from the biggest, meanest lawyer in the state. If you can’t get satisfaction and you have evidence that fraud or a rip-off has occurred (or is about to occur), a complaint to your state AG’s office can be an effective way to get the attention of someone at the company who will do something about your problem. If a company’s home office is located in a state different from yours, you need to complain to the AG in that state.

Your state public utility commission. These agencies also are surprisingly powerful. They have a lot to say about what a utility can charge and how it can treat its customers. I sent a copy of my letter to Qwest CEO Ed Mueller along to the Arizona Corporation Commission, with the commission’s PDF form showing which specific regulated issues apply.

County and state trade and professional groups, state and county medical societies, and state and county bar associations. Some of these organizations actually license members; others simply try to ride herd on businesses to keep up the communal image. When a sleazy used-car dealer kept telephoning me looking for some mysterious woman who had welched on her car payments after giving the outfit my phone number, I discovered a statewide trade group of used car dealers. After I contacted them, the guy gave up pestering me.

The U.S. attorney general. If you have been the victim of an interstate fraud or other crime, this is the agency for you.

The Federal Communication Commission’s Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau. The Bush Administration has effectively defanged formerly powerful federal regulatory agencies, among them the FCC, leaving American citizens with far fewer resources to defend themselves against predatory corporate interests. However, the FCC still does provide a fair amount of consumer information and accepts complaints or reports on a few interstate matters.

The Federal Trade Commission. This agency retains substantial clout. It oversees consumer protection in seven major areas. If my current approach to Qwest through the state corporation commission and the company’s upper management fails, the FTC will be hearing from me.

Other federal regulatory agencies. Thelen’s Construction Weblinks includes a list of federal agencies. If you don’t see what you want here, this wiki provides a few extra leads.

When you’re certain you’re in the right, don’t give up. Pursue all avenues to get recourse. Often when a company sees that you’re serious and that you will not be brushed off easily, it will capitulate or at least offer an acceptable compromise. Keep up the good fight!