Consumer complaints are on the rise, whether it be over poor customer service, billing errors or faulty workmanship. The incredibly popular website Consumerist.com is even dedicated to publicizing and solving such problems. While blog posts and comments on the site suggest the biggest areas of friction, a survey released July 27 substantiates this information.
The Consumer Federation of America, the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators released the results of a study detailing "the most common, fastest growing and worst complaints" received in 2010 by 31 agencies. Most were related to the economic hardships faced by consumers and businesses.
Here's a look at the top 11 consumer complaints, along with a few possible remedies.
1. VehiclesCOMPLAINT: The fast-talking salesman isn't an out-of-date myth. Such tactics still exist, and they're bolstered by misrepresentations in advertising. What's a car buyer to do?
REMEDY: Research any unfamiliar products before you begin shopping. Consumer Reports and Car and Driver rate and review cars on their websites, although you have to buy a subscription to read Consumer Reports online so you might look for print copies at your public library. Safercar.gov also allows you to check for recalls by make and year of the vehicle.
2. Credit and DebtCOMPLAINT: A friend had a credit rating about 800, until his bank was purchased and all routing numbers were changed. All his bills were auto-paid so he had to change this information for each account -- a feat that proved to be unbelievably difficult. Six months later, he's still trying to get the situation corrected and his credit rating has dropped below 700.
Correcting credit and debt errors is a nightmare from which it often feels Americans will never wake. To do so requires determination, many phone calls and lots of letters, but you're faced with an even bigger problem if you allow the mistake to stand.
REMEDY: Companies can't legally charge a fee to help you settle or reduce debts, including avoiding foreclosure. Instead, seek out legitimate, licensed sources to deal with such problems. Non-profit credit counseling agencies are available for free or at a reduced cost, depending on your financial situation. To find a service in your area, call 1-800-388-2227 or visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website.
3. Home Improvement and Construction (tie)COMPLAINT: After seven years of trying to build his dream home, actor Will Smith was so frustrated he advised others not to even attempt the job. If a multi-zillionaire celebrity was so stressed by the process, what can us little people do about shoddy work and failing to start or finish the job?
REMEDY: Research companies before you engage their services and only hire those who are licensed. Word of mouth is your best ally and getting references is a necessity.
Rutgers University compiled a detailed listing of websites with resources for researching companies of all types. The Better Business Bureau also can often fill you in on complaints lodged against local companies.
4. Retail Sales (tie)COMPLAINT: False advertising, defective merchandise, problems with coupons, gift cards and rebates...the problems abound. The maxim "buyer beware" particularly becomes a necessity when you're dealing with a small budget for high-ticket items, but even smaller purchases can break the bank, if repeated often enough.
REMEDY: To avoid problems with gift cards, use them promptly instead of tossing them into a drawer. Even long-established businesses -- like Borders and Circuit City -- can go broke and you might have trouble cashing in your cards when they do. If its unlikely you'll use the them, sell your gift cards on GiftCardGranny.com.
A fake coupon likely won't have a bar code and expiration date. Look for qualified, printable and online coupons at such sites as CouponSherpa.com. To ensure you receive a rebate, follow the guidelines listed in Consumer Reports' article "Rebate tips: Make sure you get what's coming to you."
5. ServicesCOMPLAINT: The term "service" has almost become an oxymoron since the beginning of the recession. I'm not talking about texting sales clerks who ignore customers, however. The complaints were about shoddy work or failure to perform a service.
REMEDY: Don't pay the entire bill upfront. If you're asked for a deposit, give the service provider one-quarter of the total but withhold further payments until the work progresses or is completed as promised.
6. Internet SalesCOMPLAINT: Shopping online can be wonderful. Ease of comparing prices, free shipping offers and a wider range of options are at your fingertips. Sadly, some Internet merchants misrepresent their products and/or fail to deliver.
REMEDY: Use your credit card or a PayPal account for online purchases so you can dispute products that were misrepresented or you didn't receive.
7. Household GoodsCOMPLAINT: Complaints varied a mere mite between online and brick-and-mortar merchants. Consumers were fed up with misrepresented products, delivery failures and faulty repairs. Raise your hand if you've experienced such problems.
REMEDY: As with online sales, you're best off making major purchases with a credit card so you have buyer protection. Don't fall for schemes, however, that try to sell you credit-card payment protection plans. Your provider should already carry this service, so check with the issuer before you buy.
8. UtilitiesCOMPLAINT: If you have phone, satellite, cable, electric, Internet or gas service, you likely know why the survey respondents complained about their utility services. I went through three Internet providers before finding one that actually worked, which left me without service for three months. Naturally, this led to billing problems, a problem almost every American has experienced.
REMEDY: The Consumerist received so many complaints on billing and service issues they created directions on "How to Write a Complaint Letter." Make sure you read the "Comments" on this page as they provide useful advice. Before resorting to a letter, however, start with at least two attempts to solve the problem over the phone. Never resort to threats or swearing as this will only irritate the customer service representative. Remember, they have the power to put you in "hold" purgatory. If there's a local office available, you'll often receive a better response by hiking down there and politely stating your case. A friend recently met a stonewall when trying to get a better deal on his Comcast service, until he made a personal visit. Bingo: Bill reduced from $95 to $30 for the same service.
9. Landlord and Tenant IssuesCOMPLAINT: Problems abound on both sides, but tenants have the least protection against landlord ineptitude and outright injustices. Complaints from survey respondents focused on unsafe living conditions; illegal evictions; rent and deposit disputes; and failure to make necessary repairs or provide promised extras.
REMEDY: Get everything in writing so you have recourse when an issue arises. That means you need a detailed rental agreement, which you should read thoroughly before signing. Do a walk-through with your landlord before moving in to note any stains, scratches, etc., then make copies for both of you and have them signed. Contact your local sheriff for solutions to illegal evictions. When all else fails, check to see if your city, county or local university/community college offers landlord/tenant mediation services.
10. Fraud COMPLAINT: Surely that Nigerian prince must be out of money by now, having given it all away to complete strangers via emails. Sad to say, some people are taken in by bogus emails, work-from-home offers and other schemes that inundate our junk boxes. Fraud complaints didn't even break the top 10 last year but it looks like they're soon destined for a shoot to the top.
REMEDY: Trust me; no stranger is going to wire you money for any reason. The same goes for companies requesting your personal information to "check" on a shipment, payment, etc., as well as offers to help you make money FAST! If you think you've been a victim of fraud, visit the National Consumers League's Fraud Center.
11. Home SolicitationCOMPLAINT: A localized version of the Green River Ordinance is used to prohibit home solicitation in my friend's city. Now this consumer-protection legislation is going by the wayside, thanks to a U.S. District Court ruling. Fortunately, misrepresentation or failing to deliver a door-to-door service or product is illegal, and the same holds true for mail or telemarketing solicitations -- all common complaints.
REMEDY: As the saying goes: When in doubt, check it out. Before you buy, research the company's reputation via your state or local consumer agency. As mentioned above, pay with a credit card so you have buyer protection for products, and get all promises in writing.
Andrea Woroch is a consumer and money-saving expert for Kinoli Inc., which operates a group of money-saving brand sites called The Frugals. She is available for in-studio, satelite or skype interviews and to write guest posts or articles. As a nationally recognized media source, Andrea has been featured on NBC Today Show, FOX & Friends, MSNBC, ShopSmart Magazine, Kiplinger Personal Finance, CNNMoney and many more. To view recent interviews or for more savings tips visit www.andreaworoch.com.