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.

Trending News

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."

Robocall revenge: Meet the techies turning the tables on scammers

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.

How to spot a student loan scam

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

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Home improvement scams top latest list of consumer complaints

When corrupt contractors overcharge for subpar work, the costs can spiral into the hundreds of thousands of dollars

4M ago Home_improvement_projects_with_big_payoffs.jpg istock-66114451-large.jpg

Gift-card scam targets people of faith, FTC warns

Fraudsters are pretending to be priests, rabbis and other religious leaders to solicit gift-card donations

2H ago istock-66114451-large.jpg 6275435.jpg

Have a Capital One credit card? Take these 5 steps

If you're a Capital One customer, consider adding extra levels of security to keep scammers from misusing your data

2H ago 6275435.jpg US-ECONOMY-BANK-RATE

What a Fed move to cut rates would mean for you

For most Americans, lower borrowing costs might not help as much as it has in the past — here's why

6H ago US-ECONOMY-BANK-RATE computer.jpg

Capital One data breach hits more than 100 million people

The hacker got information including credit scores and balances plus the Social Security numbers of about 140,000 customers

12H ago computer.jpg ​Railroad heiress Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper is seen in a Jan. 4, 1964, photograph.

Gloria Vanderbilt, heiress and jeans queen, has died at age 95

Gloria Vanderbilt was the intrepid heiress, artist and romantic who began her extraordinary life as the "poor little rich girl" of the Great Depression

Jun 17 ​Railroad heiress Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper is seen in a Jan. 4, 1964, photograph. Apple Worldwide Developers Conference Opens In San Francisco

Apple announces iTunes replacement, iOS 13 updates

The tech giant is holding its annual conference where it announced some major changes concerning user privacy — and showcased one very expensive computer

Jun 3 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference Opens In San Francisco Boeing Holds Annual Shareholders Meeting In Chicago

Boeing CEO won't say 737 Max software design was flawed

Boeing chief Dennis Muilenburg spoke to the public for the first time since the Lion Air crash killed 189 people

Apr 29 Boeing Holds Annual Shareholders Meeting In Chicago Labor Department Reports 201,000 Added During Month Of August

Employment bounces back in March with 196K jobs added

After a disappointing February, strong job growth sends reassuring signals about the economy

Apr 5 Labor Department Reports 201,000 Added During Month Of August Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey And Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg Testify To Senate Committee On Foreign Influence Operations

Israeli consultancy Archimedes Group banned from Facebook, and other updates from a year of crises

One year after the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed unprecedented sharing of user data, Facebook still struggles with privacy issues

May 16 Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey And Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg Testify To Senate Committee On Foreign Influence Operations


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here