Consumer Corner with Anita Wilson: Tales from the consumer complaint blotter

AP

Published: 02-14-2024 11:40 AM

A local man signed up for cellphone service but, his phone calls kept dropping at home and he missed many incoming calls. He tried canceling the service, but every month he continued to receive a bill.

Finally, he filed a consumer complaint with the Massachusetts Attorney General Office’s Consumer Advocacy and Response Division, which is how our Consumer Protection Unit got involved. We reached out to the provider, explained the situation and the company canceled the service and refunded the charges.

Less than a year after she purchased it, a Hampshire County woman’s new water heater failed. The water heater was still under warranty, so she reached out to the store. Communication between the store and manufacturer went nowhere, and she had no hot water for more than a month. She filed a consumer complaint. At that point, our office reached out to the store on her behalf, and the store arranged for a local technician to fix the appliance.

A Franklin County couple paid a home improvement contractor a deposit in the winter to start work on their home in the spring. Spring came and went, but the work had not started. They reached out to contact the contractor to set a date for the work with no luck. When they asked for their deposit back, again they had no luck. They filed a consumer complaint. We called the contractor, discussed the couple’s need to have the repairs done as soon as possible and, after hearing the concerns, he agreed to refund the deposit.

Those are just three of more than 430 consumer complaints referred to our office last year. Our unit is one of 18 Local Consumer Programs working in cooperation with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office providing consumer support and dispute resolution between a customer and a business. We serve consumers in Franklin and Hampshire counties and 17 communities in northwestern Worcester County. In many cases, we can help mediate an agreement when communication has broken down.

Last year, the most common complaints we received involved retail, vehicle purchases and repairs, cable, satellite and phone providers and home improvement projects. Based on the types of complaints we see, here are some tips to help protect yourself and exercise your consumer rights.

Before making a purchase, both in store or online, you’ll want to know the return, exchange and refund policy in case there’s a problem with the product. For online purchases, read reviews and search the name of the company followed by the word “scam “or “fraud” if it’s a company you haven’t done business with before.

Using a credit card is safer than a debit card when shopping online because the debit card is linked directly to your bank account.

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If something goes wrong, you are charged incorrectly, or you don’t receive the product, first contact the company. If you are unable to resolve the problem, dispute the charge with the credit card company. If using a debit card, the purchase has already been taken out of your bank account. In that case, there may still be hope if you contact the debit card issuer as soon as possible.

When checking out for an online purchase make sure to look for pre-checked boxes on the page. Those are tricky because you may be agreeing to receive emails or text messages or signing up for recurring shipments of (and repeating payments for) the product. Read what it says next to the box, and uncheck it if you don’t want it simply by clicking on the little box.

If you are signing a contract, such as for a cellphone service or a gym membership, it is important to read it before signing. Things to look for are cancellation and privacy policies and the full cost. You want to know what your financial obligation is, who will have access to your personal information, how to cancel the service if you no longer want it and what your rights are in case something goes wrong.

For expensive purchases such as a home appliance or a car, take time to do your research. Read ratings and reviews. Verify that there is a technician nearby who can fix the appliance if it stops working.

Before buying a car

■Research the dealer. Get recommendations from people you know and trust. Search online for complaints against the dealer.

■Research the make and model of the vehicle you are considering by checking websites and publications that offer information about buyer satisfaction, safety, and reliability.

■Check prices and trade-in values before you start shopping.

■For used cars, it’s advisable to have it checked by a mechanic you trust before you buy it.

■Never take possession of a vehicle without a title.

Before hiring a contractor

■Ask for a detailed written contract and estimate, even for small projects. It will protect you and help ensure that you and the contractor understand the scope of the job and the price.

■Check references.

■Ask to see examples of similar projects completed by the contractor.

■Check to see if the contractor is registered and whether there are any complaints with the Office of Consumer Affairs by calling 888-283-3757 or visiting mass.gov.

■You can find more specific information and a sample home improvement contract at mass.gov/info-details/required-contract-terms-in-a-home-improvement-contract.

If you’d like more information about your consumer rights, you may contact the Consumer Protection Unit at 413-586-9225 in Northampton or 413-774-3186 or check our website NorthwesternDA.org.

If you need assistance resolving a problem with a product, purchase, or service, you may file a consumer complaint with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office online at mass.gov/how-to/file-a-consumer-complaint or by contacting our office for a paper copy of the complaint form.

Anita Wilson is the Director of the Consumer Protection Unit at the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office.