Home and auto scams top list of consumer complaints in 2018

By Ed Leefeldt

/ MoneyWatch

The biggest and most frequent consumer complaint last year? Shoddy home repair and construction, according to an annual ranking compiled by the Consumer Federation of America.

Buying or leasing a lemon was biggest consumer car complaint in 2018, the latest CFA poll of state and local consumer agencies nationwide found.

Medical-billing problems are among the fastest-growing categories of complaints, the CFA said.

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Here is probably the most useful piece of advice these days from the collective wisdom of 35 consumer agencies across the country that guard ordinary Americans against scammers and fraudsters: If you're ever buying, leasing or renting a car, or seeing your car towed, bring out the cell phone and take pictures.

That's one of the takeaways from the Consumer Federation of America's 24th annual survey of the 10 top consumer complaints as reported by a poll of state and local agencies nationwide. The list generally doesn't change much from year to year, but there often are variations on existing fraud, such as using Facebook and other social media to troll for victims. There also are tales of new ways that consumer agencies fight back, according to the latest CFA list, released Tuesday.

One example: "Predatory lending" that exploits the offers for ready cash found daily on the internet or TV. Some predators lurk under the cover of Native American tribes, which claim that their sovereignty grants them immunity from state laws governing how much interest can be charged on the loan. But one consumer agency representative fought back by researching tribal law to release a borrower from a usurious payday loan. The CFA called it "one of the year's biggest achievements."

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While these 35 state and local agencies handled more than 1.1 million complaints and saved consumers $106.7 million last year, the CFA emphasizes the need for consumers themselves to be vigilant. A driver in Florida was wise enough to take a picture of the damage on his rented car before he drove it out of the company's garage. When it was returned, that same car rental employee accused him of causing the damage.

A single mother in Massachusetts got a double whammy when she bought a used car that the dealer told her was "good quality, safe and recently serviced." When it broke down shortly afterward due to engine problems, and she couldn't afford to fix it, the car was towed during a snowstorm. The dealer retrieved the car and claimed the woman had damaged it. But a photo of the car from the original dealers' ad showed that the damage was there when she bought it.

Home repair scams can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars

Car scams are relatively modest compared to home repairs. The cost to consumers there can spiral into the hundreds of thousands of dollars when corrupt contractors overcharge for subpar work, and sometimes fail to complete the job altogether.

The worst complaints received last year based on the number, the dollar amount involved, the impact on vulnerable consumers, and their sheer outrageousness were in home repair and construction, the study said.

This happens more often following natural disasters, such as the two hurricanes and brutal winter storm that struck North Carolina, precipitating "hundreds of complaints," said the latest survey. One out-of-state contractor tried to charge a homeowner $14,500 for taking down two trees – without the owner's consent. When the homeowner refused to pay, the contractor called in a debt collector who applied "high pressure" tactics to get the money.

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Other consumer scams revealed in this year's CFA report were arguably worse. A pet store owner took advantage of a woman who couldn't afford to purchase a puppy for $1,200, but instead charged her $100 a month. She signed the paperwork, but later discovered it was a lease with a buyout clause. If she wanted to keep the dog, her total cost would be $3,576.

A surrogate birth service took costumers' money, but provided no service. And a Washington, D.C., funeral home cashed a $53,000 insurance check meant to go to a grieving family whose bill for services was only $5,767. The funeral home kept the balance.

The three fastest growing problems were fraud, medical billing and retail service complaints.

"Over the years our rankings for the top complaints haven't changed that much," said the CFA's Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy, Susan Grant. "That's not surprising, since these are the problems consumers complain about to the agencies we survey. But they always require a combination of expertise and creativity to solve."

First published on July 30, 2019 / 11:57 AM

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Ed Leefeldt

Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.

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