Did you buy a lemon of a used car? Have you had issues with debt collectors or billing errors? If so, you’re not alone: Auto and credit-related complaints topped the list of consumer grievances last year, according to a new survey of consumer agencies released by the Consumer Federation of America and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators.
The fastest-growing complaints included those related to fraud, debt-collection abuses, and do-not-call violations. Investigators also cited the growth of scam artists operating out of other countries. “The Internet has opened the doors to so many criminals because they don’t have to show their faces,” says Carlos Morales of the Orange County Consumer Fraud Unit in Florida.
Even young people, who are otherwise Internet-savvy, fall prey to professional-looking websites or Craigslist ads, and end up wiring money overseas, thinking they are making a legitimate purchase. “Once money leaves our country, our laws don’t follow the money,” Morales adds.
The investigators contributing to the report, who work for federal, state, and local governments throughout the country, also pointed to the increasing complaints about timeshares, or shared vacation properties. “Timeshare sales are often very high-pressure. Consumers are lured into a room on the promise of free vacation, and then they feel pressured into buying a time-share that, often when they think about it, they can’t really afford. But they don’t necessarily have the ability to cancel,” says the Consumer Federation of America’s Susan Grant.
The problem has become exacerbated with the economy, Grant says, as some timeshare owners became unable to afford the payments and also unable to sell the timeshare. That also leaves owners vulnerable to fraud: They might receive a phone call from someone who claims to have a buyer and asks them to wire money to enable to sale, only to discover there is no buyer and their money is gone.
Here are the top 10 consumer complaints, according to the report:
1. Auto-related, including repairs and misleading advertising in sales of new and used cars.
2. Credit and debit-related, including predatory lending and debt collection.
3. Home improvement, including poor workmanship.
4. Retail sales, including false advertising.
5. Utilities, including billing problems.
6. Services, including lack of required licenses.
7. Tie between Internet sales, including failure to deliver purchases, and landlord/tenant disputes, including unsafe conditions.
8. Fraud, such as work-at-home offers and sweepstakes.
9. Real estate, including timeshares.
10. Tie between household goods, such as poor repairs of appliances, and home solicitations, such as door-to-door marketing.
Investigators also cited the rise of new problems, including bedbugs in apartments, scams related to prepaid card products, and complaints against gold-buying companies. They urge consumers to protect themselves by getting second opinions on used cars, avoiding high-pressure sales situations, and being wary of offers of “free money” or online purchases that involve wiring money.