By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun
September 11, 2011
Last week's column on a little-known state group that helps consumers with medical disputes generated emails from readers asking if organizations exist that can help them tackle other problems.
Many agencies can help wronged consumers. The Federal Communications Commission, for example, mediates phone bill disputes, and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau wants to hear about problems with credit cards.
But before you reach for outside help, take a few steps on your own.
First, contact the business directly and try to resolve the problem. In fact, some regulators will insist on this before they help you.
Consumer advocates say it's best to make your case in person, if possible. Politely — and briefly — state the problem, and what the company can do to make things right.
If this doesn't work, take your case up the management chain, all the way to writing the chief executive officer if necessary, says Tod Marks, a senior editor with Consumer Reports.
Some consumer advocates say if success continues to evade you, air the grievance on social media sites, particularly Twitter. Many large companies monitor these sites and will reach out to unhappy customers to avoid negative publicity.
If the problem is fixed, Marks says, it's good "netiquette" to praise the company on the sites.
If your attempt to fix things with a company fails, lodge a complaint with regulators or other groups. Maintaining documents and a record of the times you contacted the company and the people you spoke with will help regulators.
Here are resources to handle common complaints:
Consumer Protection Division, Mediation Unit Karen Straughn, director of the state mediation unit, suggests customers unsatisfied with businesses start with her office.
"If we are not the right office, it's part of our responsibility to get you to the right office," she says.
The unit also is a good place for consumers to find out their rights under the law before they complain to a business.
It oversees a wide range of areas, including new home construction, tenant and landlords, car purchases, retailers, homeowners and condo associations, phone service and Internet businesses.
Consumers can call 410-528-8662 or complain online at http://www.oag.state.md.us.
Once the unit gets involved, Straughn says, it will mediate disputes and advocate on behalf of consumers when there's been a violation of the law.
The mediation group gets about 50,000 calls a year and handles around 12,000 complaints annually. Its success rate — when consumers are satisfied with the results — is 60 percent, Straughn says.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau The new federal agency now is accepting complaints about credit cards.
File a complaint by calling 855-411-CFPB or filling out a form at consumerfinance.gov. The online form offers a "chat now" feature so you can ask questions of a staffer when filling out the complaint.
The agency will pass complaints on to card issuers. If issuers ignored you before, certainly a complaint forwarded by the CFPB will grab their attention. Unresolved disputes go back to the CFPB for review.
Public Service Commission The state commission regulates electric and gas utilities, landline phones and taxicabs.
The PSC received more than 14,000 utility-related complaints last year, far outnumbering tiffs with taxicabs. You must try to resolve a problem with the utility first before going to the PSC. There's no deadline for the company to respond, but customers can contact the commission if they think the utility is dragging its feet, says spokeswoman Regina Davis.
File a complaint with the commission at psc.state.md.us or by calling 800-492-0474 or 410-767-8028. Companies must respond within seven days, Davis says.
Federal Communications Commission The agency oversees phones — landline and mobile — radio, television, satellite services and indecency on TV.
The FCC, which received more than 160,000 complaints in the first half of this year, runs two call centers with 67 staffers who help consumers mediate problems with carriers. Often the disputes involve telephone rates and bills, including some cases of overseas travelers who unwittingly racked up thousands of dollars in international roaming charges on their cellphones.
"We recover quite a bit of money for consumers," says Joel Gurin, chief of the FCC's consumer and governmental affairs bureau. "We tend not to give up."
He says the agency typically returns $4 million to $5 million annually to customers.
File a complaint online at fcc.gov/complaints or call 888-225-5322.
Maryland Insurance Administration The agency handles complaints ranging from denials of benefits to increases in premiums for health, life, and property and casualty insurance.
If a medical claim has been denied, consumers usually must appeal to the health plan first. But if you have been denied benefits during an emergency, you may appeal directly to the state agency at 800-492-6116.
Complaints about other types of insurance or premium increases must be made in writing. Download forms online at http://www.mdinsurance.state.md.us or call the agency for assistance. The MIA's website posts a schedule to indicate when staffers will appear in public places to help consumers file complaints.
To quickly resolve disputes over auto and homeowner claims without filing a formal complaint, try the agency's rapid response program. Information is available at 410-468-2340.
Department of Transportation Unhappy travelers for the past year or so have been able to file a grievance online with the federal agency, a quicker and easier format, says Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance.
Before, consumers were able to complain only in a letter or by leaving a phone message, and they often left out critical information that delayed the process, Leocha says.
The online complaint form at airconsumer.dot.gov/problems.htm asks for all the necessary details.
"It's just a far more efficient system," Leocha says.
Once the DOT gets your complaint, it will forward it to the airline.
"When an airline gets something forwarded to them from the Department of Transportation, all of a sudden everything breaks," he says.
The DOT will act on a complaint if an airline violates rules, Leocha says. But often the agency is looking for trends that might become the basis for new regulations.
Better Business Bureau Before social media, there was the BBB, where consumers could lodge complaints, and the company's response — or lack thereof — affected its published rating.
Some BBB offices protect consumers aggressively, says Anthony Giorgianni, an associate finance editor with Consumer Reports' Money Adviser. But others, he says, seem more interested in adding businesses to membership rolls.
Giorgianni says it's still worthwhile to complain to the BBB because your experience will become part of the company's record and serve as a warning to other consumers.
File a complaint online at bbb.org.
Angie Barnett, president of the BBB of Greater Maryland, says the organization forwards complaints to businesses, which are given 14 days to respond and a reminder if they don't. If the two sides can't resolve the dispute, Barnett says, the BBB offers a variety of services, including mediation and binding arbitration.
In the past 12 months, the Greater Maryland BBB received 11,275 complaints. Two-thirds of the complaints against nonmembers were settled to the satisfaction of both sides, Barnett says, while 98 percent of complaints against members were settled.
Members pledge to resolve complaints, Barnett says, and the 2 percent that didn't were booted from the BBB.
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