Even the savviest consumer has a problem with a good or service on occasion. It is a consumer’s right to complain when there is a genuine problem. In some situations, it is also a consumer’s responsibility. A problem can’t be fixed if no one knows it exists. In this series of three lessons, students learn how to effectively seek redress for a consumer problem. In the first lesson, they are given tips for seeking redress from a seller of a good or service via personal visits, telephone calls and letters. They write a letter in an effort to resolve a consumer problem they or someone they know has experienced. Lessons 2 and 3 focus on what to do when a consumer is unable to get a problem resolved with a seller. A variety of options are presented in both the public and private arena. Students must select sources of outside help that would be appropriate in hypothetical situations they are given.
- Identify and explain the role government agencies have in helping consumers with market problems.
- Create a plan for remedying a consumer problem.
In order to get the most out of this lesson you should consider doing the first two parts of this three-part series. Point out to the students that the solutions they considered for the used-car problem in Part 2 were limited to private remedies. In the real world, there are also government organizations that might have been helpful. In this lesson, they will explore these additional sources of help.
You may also want to provide some specific examples of how government institutions might have helped with the used-car purchase in Part 2. For example, a local or state consumer-protection agency might intervene with the dealer on the buyer’s behalf. At a minimum, the agency would tell the car buyer about his or her legal rights. As a last resort, the consumer might file a case in small-claims court, asking for money to pay for the towing and repair of the car.
[NOTE: Not all local/state consumer protections agencies and small-claims courts have a presence on the Internet. This is an excellent time to distribute any print materials you are able to find on such entities where you live.]
Government links : The following Web links are provided to students as sources of additional information for government organizations that help consumers with market problems.
The Federal Trade Commission: The agency that sets and enforces many of the rules that protect consumers—particularly those concerning fraud, deception and unfair practices in the marketplace.
Econsumer.Gov: This site allows users to file complaints about e-commerce across international borders.
U.S. Postal Inspection Service: This site has an interest when the mail is used to steal money.
The National Fraud Information Center: Operated by the nonprofit National Consumers League, this contact takes complaints concerning telemarketing and Internet fraud, and then transmits them to the appropriate law enforcement agency.
If a product poses a safety hazard, there are federal agencies responsible for the specific product.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ( www.nhtsa.gov )
Drugs, medical devices:
Food and Drug Administration ( www.fda.gov )
U.S. Department of Agriculture ( www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usdahome )
Food and Drug Administration ( www.fda.gov/ )
Food and Drug Administration ( www.fda.gov )
U.S. Department of Commerce ( www.commerce.gov )
Toys, baby and play equipment, household products:
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission ( www.cpsc.gov )
There are dozens of other federal agencies that regulate consumer products and services. These three Web sites created by the Federal Government are suggested for further information:
Consumer.Gov: This site is a gateway to all things federal that are of interest to consumers.
USA.Gov: This site is an even bigger gateway to all things federal, including phone numbers and addresses of federal agencies.
The Federal Citizen Information Center: This site provides a directory with contact information for agencies that have enforcement and/or consumer complaint handling responsibilities.
State and Local Consumer Protection Offices: This site is an online directory of city, county and state government agencies from the Federal Citizen Information Center.
Private links : The following Web links provide background and contact information for private organizations that help consumers with market problems. They were introduced to students in Part 2.
Better Business Bureaus: A network of nonprofit organizations supported by local business to resolve buyer complaints against sellers.
Call for Action, Inc.: Local newspapers and broadcast stations that try to resolve consumer complaints.
Directory of Trade and Professional Associations: This site provides a list of special interest groups that may help resolve problems between their members and consumers.
American Society of Travel Agents, Inc):This site provides an industry association students may identify in completing their assessment activity.
Organization Flow Chart: This EconEdLink worksheet is used in assessment activity.
Organization Flow Chart
Consumer Sources Worksheet: This is a worksheet to assist students in summarizing private and public organizations that offer assistance with consumer problems
Consumer Sources Worksheet
Consumer Sources of Help Answer Key: This EconEdLink resource provides a summary of the many private and public organizations that offer assistance with consumer problems.
Consumer Sources of Help Answer Key
National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators Report : This site provides the top complaints being filed with local and state consumer protection agencies to be used with the extension activity.
Have the students read through the articles above and summarize the consumer problems with government sources of assistance. Links are identical to those found in the student version. Categories of help include the following:
- Federal Agencies
- State and Local Government Organizations
- Legal Action
[NOTE: Some teachers prefer to print and distribute copies of worksheets versus having students print out their own copies.]
In Part 1 of this lesson series, students learned how to register a complaint via a personal visit, telephone call and letter. When communication with the seller does not yield satisfaction, outside help may be required. In Part 2, the students are provided an introduction to private organizations that may be able to assist them including Better Business Bureaus, Media programs, trade/professional groups and consumer organizations. In this lesson, Part 3, the students are told there are some sellers who have no intention of delivering what they promise--they misrepresent what they are selling or otherwise try to trick consumers out of their money. Laws and regulations exist that specify how sellers must treat consumers. When a business fails to follow these rules, a government agency may get involved. The students are provided an introduction to government agencies that may be able to assist them.
Federal laws require consumers to be treated honestly. There are also federal laws that require businesses to give consumers information on the content, care and use of products. When these laws are broken, federal agencies are rarely able to act on behalf of individual consumers, but consumer complaints are used to document the illegal actions. If there are many complaints, a federal agency may force the company to change its practices. In some situations, there is additional action--for example, a court case initiated by the agency, a financial penalty or even (in the case of a criminal conviction) sending the seller to prison.
- The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the agency that sets and enforces many of the rules that protect consumers—particularly those concerning fraud, deception and unfair practices in the marketplace. Letters can be sent to the FTC Consumer Response Center, Washington, DC 20580 or you can call toll-free 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). You can also file complaints electronically: choose the “File a Complaint Online” link. Complaints about e-commerce across international borders can be filed at www.econsumer.gov .
- Scams that use the mail should be reported to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service . It is illegal to use the mail to misrepresent or steal money.
- If a complaint involves telemarketing or Internet fraud, the National Fraud Information Center --operated by the nonprofit National Consumers League--will take the complaint and transmit it to the appropriate law enforcement agency.
If you suspect you have a product that poses a safety hazard, you will want to report the problem to the federal agency responsible for the specific product.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Drugs, medical devices:
Food and Drug Administration
U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Drug Administration
Food and Drug Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce
Toys, baby and play equipment, household products:
U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
There are dozens of other federal agencies that regulate consumer products and services. If you haven't found what you are looking for above, try these three Web sites created by the Federal Government to assist you.
- Consumer.gov is a gateway to all things federal that are of interest to consumers.
- USA.gov is an even bigger gateway to all things federal, including phone numbers and addresses of federal agencies. You can even send an email asking for help identifying the right agency to contact.
- The Federal Citizen Information Center provides a directory with contact information for agencies that have enforcement and/or consumer complaint handling responsibilities.
Consumers with problems are not charged directly for the help they receive. Of course, we all pay for this help through taxes.
State and Local Government Organizations
State and local governments also have legal guidelines on how businesses can treat consumers. While the laws vary from place to place, many states have consumer laws concerning:
- Consumer credit
- Savings and investments
- Food preparation and storage in public eating places
- Sale of bedding, upholstering and other household goods
- Water sanitation and sewage disposal
- Real estate zoning and restrictions
- Private and public education
- Recreation and travel facilities (for example, swimming pools, beaches, motels)
- Weight and measures for gasoline, food and other goods
- Licensing of service providers
State and local government agencies are more likely than federal agencies to take action on behalf of individual consumers. Some state and local agencies have the authority to take legal action forcing a seller to stop certain practices, to reimburse consumers, to pay penalties or even to send violators to jail. In other cases, agencies may be limited to trying to convince a seller to voluntarily resolve a problem. At a minimum, these agencies usually provide information on your legal rights and steps you might take to get redress. As with the federal government, the costs of these services are covered through taxes.
State and Local Consumer Protection Offices: These government agencies mediate complaints, conduct investigations and prosecute offenders of consumer laws. Some of these offices will follow up on an individual complaint, while others look into cases only when many people file the same complaint.
- State Regulatory Agencies: These agencies establish and enforce laws and regulations for select industries including banking, securities, insurance and utilities. Sometimes they also help consumers with problems.
- State and Local Licensing Agencies: Doctors, lawyers, home improvement contractors, auto repair shops, debt collectors and child care providers are among the service providers that must, in some states, register or be licensed. The board or agency that oversees this process may handle complaints and have the authority to take disciplinary action. Your state or local consumer protection office can help you identify the appropriate agency.
Use this online directory or look for city, county and state government agencies in your local phone book. If the business you are complaining about is located in another state, try to contact that state's consumer office or ask your own state office to help you contact the right office in the other state.
After you have tried every other option in the complaint process without success, your last resort is to file a legal suit.
Small-claims court: If your claim is small, you can take your case to small-claims court. Small-claims courts exist in every state. The maximum amount you can claim ranges from $1,000 to $5,000. Claims are typically limited to dollar amounts. Requests for repair or replacement are not accepted. An advantage of a small-claims court is that you rarely need an attorney in order to use the court. In fact, lawyers are not allowed to represent clients in many of these courts. The cost of filing a case is low, usually under $100. A judge decides what, if anything, a consumer is owed. Some courts require losers to reimburse winners for court fees.
To start a suit in small-claims court, take all the information you have about the problem to the courthouse. The court clerk will give you the forms to file and tell you how to proceed. Be aware that if you win, the small claims court does not collect the judgment for you. If the business chooses not to pay what the court says is owed you, you may have to spend more time and money taking additional legal steps to try to collect.
- Higher courts: If there is no small-claims court where your problem occurred, or if the amount of your claim is greater than the maximum allowed, you have other legal options. You may hire a lawyer and bring action in a higher court. Lawyers charge a fee for their services. If your claim is a large one, it may be worthwhile to hire a lawyer. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, check with your local legal-aid office. Sometimes many consumers have the same complaint against the same business. They may get together and file a class-action suit. Rules for bringing class actions vary from state to state.
A judge or jury decides what consumers are owed, if anything. Again, the court does not collect this amount. A winning consumer may have to take additional legal steps if the loser refuses to pay.
Have the students work in teams of two or three to identify three organizations – at least one private and at least one government – that would be appropriate to contact in the hypothetical situation presented. Have the students print out the Organization Flow Chart to fill in their responses to the questions below. Responses for the situation that may be appropriate depend on where you live:
- How should your class officers contact this organization—by personal visit, telephone or letter?
- What is the address and phone number for the organization?
- What is a reasonable request for resolving the problem?
- What type of help can you expect from the organization?
Possible organizations may come from the resources listed below.
- A local Better Business Bureau
- A local media program. Check local media sources as well as Call for Action, Inc.
- American Society of Travel Agents , Inc. Consumer Affairs, 1101 King St., Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314. Phone: 703-739-2782.
- State or local consumer protection offices .
- The Federal Trade Commission
- The U.S. Postal Inspection Service , if the money was sent by mail.
- A small-claims or a higher court
Assessment can be kept very simple, with students given credit if they select an appropriate organization and answer all the questions concerning the organization.
Perhaps you might award one point for an appropriate organization and an additional point for correct answers to each of the associated questions—a total of 15 points or a multiple of 15.
After completion of the assessment activity, ask a few students to share their ideas with the class. Discuss:
- What organizations would you go to first? [Typically, a local BBB, media organization or local/state consumer protection office.]
- What would be your last resort? [Court.]
- When does the federal government get involved in a problem? [Typically, when a lot of consumers claim a violation of a federal law or when there is a serious safety hazard.]
- What does the majority of students in the class feel is a reasonable way to resolve this consumer problem?
- What could the class officer have done differently to avoid this problem? [Potential responses include: 1) Checking out the agent with a BBB or other customers before signing the deal; 2) giving the agent only part of the money until the tickets and reservations were received.]
- What do you think is the likelihood that the dealer will pay or make the repair? [There is a chance the money will never be returned, especially if the agent has left town.]
If technology allows, call one or two sources of help via a speaker phone in your classroom. Ask what the organization might do in the given situation and the likelihood of resolution. An alternative approach is for you or one of your students to make the call prior to the class and report what is said.
Point out that, unfortunately, some complaints are never resolved. The only good thing that comes out of these situations is that they can teach us about being more careful when making future purchases.
Have the students do the following:
Read the first pages of the Consumer Complaint Survey Report
published by the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators in partnership with the Consumer Federation of America that identifies the top complaints being filed with local and state consumer protection agencies. Use the report to answer the questions in the interactive below:
What were the top ten complaint categories identified in the most recent survey? [Home Improvement/Repairs, Automobile Sales, Automobile Repairs, Credit, Telecommunications/Cable/Satellite, Debt Collections/Billing Practices, ID Theft/Deceptive Practices, Internet/ ISP/E-Commerce, Major Purchases/Household Goods & Telemarketing/Sales Practice.]
Which complaints appear regularly on the list? [Auctions, Merchandised Ordered over the Internet, Internet Service Providers, Nigerian Letter Scams or similar, Business Opportunities, Credit cards/credit repair, Spam, Phishing, Lotteries/sweepstakes, Other: unsolicited pornography, Digital Subscriber Lines & travel.]
Which complaints seem to be increasing in frequency?[Identity Theft/Deceptive Practice]
Which complaints are new? [Disaster Related Complaint]
- What were the top ten complaint categories identified in the most recent survey? [Home Improvement/Repairs, Automobile Sales, Automobile Repairs, Credit, Telecommunications/Cable/Satellite, Debt Collections/Billing Practices, ID Theft/Deceptive Practices, Internet/ ISP/E-Commerce, Major Purchases/Household Goods & Telemarketing/Sales Practice.]
Create a slide show of tips on how to be a savvy consumer and share their presentations at a special school event for parents. An excellent source for the tips is the “Consumer Topics” section of the online Consumer Action Handbook
Research a local, state or federal government agency and then develop a slide show or an oral report based on their findings. Potential agencies include your local and state consumer protection organizations, state regulatory agencies, local and state licensing organizations, and federal consumer agencies. Contact information for many of these Federal
organizations can be found online. These Internet directories are maintained by the Federal Citizen Information Center.
Watch media versions of small-claims court sessions such as "The People’s Court" and "Judge Judy." Some of the disputes involve consumer issues. Point out that while these cases are often sensationalized, they can provide some insight into how to present a case in court. Have the students create a list of do’s and don’ts. Items on their list might include:
- Do bring any papers to court that can prove your claim.
- Don’t talk when the judge or other parties in the case are talking.
- Do be respectful of the court.
You may also want to invite persons from various private and government organizations that help consumers to visit your class to explain what they can and can’t do to help consumers solve a problem. Encourage the visitors to share any literature and advice they have concerning the avoidance of problems.
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