The first place to start when trying to resolve any consumer dispute is with the business with which you have the dispute. Send a letter to the business (return receipt requested) explaining what the problem is and asking for your money back. Many of the procedures discussed above require this as a first step in the dispute resolution process.
TIP: Do not think that just because the business was not responsive when taking your telephone complaint, it will be equally unresponsive to a letter. A letter has far less emotion than an angry telephone call to customer service and allows you to rationally present the reasons for your dispute.
Your demand letter should outline the reasons why the business owes you money and inform the business of the steps you plan to take if you do not receive satisfaction, including filing suit.
TIP: Be sure to keep copies of your letter in the event that you are forced to sue the business. This letter can then be used in evidence at your trial.
What can a state consumer protection agency do for me?
State consumer protection agencies are valuable resources for consumers. These agencies provide a variety of services, including:
- educating consumers about their rights;
- publishing pamphlets on state consumer protection laws;
- advising consumers on how to avoid scams;
- maintaining consumer complaint phone lines;
- conducting investigations into scams;
- enforcing consumer protection laws;
- bringing civil lawsuits to stop scammers;
- prosecuting scammers under criminal laws; and
- licensing and regulating various professions, such as real estate brokers or insurance agents.
TIP: You can find your state’s consumer protection by visiting the federal Consumer Action Web site at http://consumeraction.gov/caw_state_resources.shtml.
I have heard about “alternative dispute resolution.” What is this?
Many businesses and private organizations, as well as public agencies, offer dispute resolution programs. These programs are quicker, less expensive and less stressful than going to court. Moreover, many courts encourage the use of these programs before suit is filed.
To determine whether dispute resolution programs are available in your area, contact your state or local consumer protection agency, state attorney general, local court, Better Business Bureau or the local bar association.
TIP: If the dispute resolution program is unable to solve your problem, you may still be able to file suit against the business. Two things to remember: some programs are binding on both parties and, therefore, you will be precluded from filing suit. Moreover, if you are able to file suit, some jurisdictions limit the timeframe in which you may bring suit. Make sure to check the laws in your state.
What are some other government agencies that can help me?
- The Federal Trade Commission works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers identify, stop and avoid them.
- To file a complaint or to get free information on consumer issues, visit www.ftc.gov or call toll-free: 877.FTC.HELP/877.382.4357; TTY: 866.653.4261. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the United States and abroad.
- The Federal Citizen Information Center Web site can be found at www.pueblo.gsa.gov. The Web site provides directions on how to file a consumer complaint as well as information on the latest scams, frauds and consumer abuse items in the news.
- Federal Reserve. If you have a complaint about a bank regarding any federal credit law, you can get advice from the Federal Reserve. Submit your written complaint describing the questionable bank practice, including the name and address of the bank involved to:
The Division of Consumer and Community Affairs
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
Washington, D.C. 20551
SIDEBAR: The Board supervises only state chartered banks that are members of the Federal Reserve System. Complaints about other institutions will be referred to the appropriate federal regulatory agency, and a notice will be sent to you notifying you as to where your complaint has been referred.
- The National Fraud Information Center can help you if you have been defrauded. The Center has an online form you can use to report suspected telemarketing or Internet fraud. The information provided on the form will be transmitted to the appropriate law enforcement agencies. The Center also provides information on current fraud schemes and advice on avoiding fraud.
- The Better Business Bureau has an online complaint form. After filling out the form, the BBB will contact the business or organization to attempt to resolve the issue. You can reach the BBB at www.bbb.org.
- Prosecutors. Call your district attorney or state attorney general’s office and ask whether there is a consumer fraud division.
- Media. Contact your local newspaper, radio station or television station and ask if they have an action line. Often, these entities have volunteers ready to pursue consumer complaints.
- Small Claims Courts. If the amount of money in question is relatively small, you can file a lawsuit in small claims court. The costs of doing so are low, the procedures are straightforward, and you probably will not need to hire an attorney.
- Contact an attorney about filing suit. When all else fails, make an appointment with an attorney and present your case. If the attorney believes that it is warranted, he or she can file suit on your behalf. The various types of recovery available to you have been discussed throughout this chapter.
You can contact the NFIC at 800.876.7060 or visit its Web site at www.fraud.org.