Bedbugs, fake timeshare resellers and solicitations for home repairs disguised as “free” energy audits were among the newest types of complaints that consumer protection agencies fielded last year, according to a just-released annual report from the Consumer Federation of America.
The report, which includes a top 10 list of complaints, offers a snapshot of common ways people say they are being ripped off nationwide.
Bedbugs appear to be a growing problem in apartments, according to the report, which was produced from a survey of 38 state and local agencies in 22 states. Agencies began getting more complaints last year from tenants whose landlords were refusing to deal with infestations. Some apartment owners have started to include clauses in leases requiring tenants to pay a portion of the extermination costs.
Complaints about high-pressure sales of timeshares aren’t new. But complaints are on the rise about timeshare “resellers,” which fail to unload unwanted timeshares after collecting upfront fees, and timeshare “recovery” services, which promise to recoup money lost from resellers.
“Resale and recovery services are just total ripoffs,” said Susan Grant, the Consumer Federation’s director of consumer protection.
10 tips for avoiding scams
The Consumer Federation of America offers the following tips to avoid being the victim of a scam:
1. Before buying from unfamiliar companies or individuals, check their track record with consumer agencies such as the state Attorney General’s Office, the Better Business Bureau and with online complaint forums.
2. Hire licensed professionals.
3. Pay with a credit card so you can dispute charges if something goes wrong.
4. Use gift cards and certificates promptly to avoid problems in the event a business closes or goes bankrupt.
5. Don’t pay in full upfront.
6. Recognize the danger signs of fraud, such as requests to wire money and pressure to act immediately.
7. Get all promises in writing and read contracts before you sign.
8. Seek help for financial problems from legitimate sources. It’s illegal for companies that offer to settle your debts or help avoid foreclosure to charge fees until they’ve done what they promised. Try to work out debt problems directly with creditors. To find nonprofit credit counseling services, try www.nfcc.org or (800) 388-2227. For help getting mortgage payments adjusted, call (800) 569-4287.
9. Know your debt collection rights. For a consumer guide, visit www.ftc.gov/os/statutes/fdcpajump.shtm.
10. When in doubt, check it out. Ask state or local consumer agencies for advice. For agency listings, visit www.consumeraction.gov/state.
The report from the Washington, D.C.-based association of nonprofit consumer organizations recommends consumers avoid resellers that take upfront fees and says not to “throw good money after bad” by paying another company to recover money lost to a reseller. It says the best options are to ask the company that manages the timeshare property about resale alternatives or to consult with a licensed real estate agent.
The report also flagged a new trend of scammers exploiting the growing popularity of prepaid debit cards to get cash in a hurry. The report warns that paying with a prepaid card offers no more protection than paying in cash.
“Just as with money transfer services, crooks can abuse prepaid products to get money quickly from consumers before they realize they’ve been scammed,” Grant said.
Nearly all of the top 10 complaints in 2011 were the same categories cited in previous reports, such as problems with automobile sales and service, mortgages, credit repair and debt relief services and home improvement scams.
Grant said that was understandable because problems with big-ticket purchases are more apt to trigger complaints.
The No. 1 type of complaint last year, as in past years, involved vehicles, including sales, leasing, faulty repairs, lemons, towing disputes and misleading advertising.
The rest of the top 10 included:
2. Credit/debt. (Billing and fee disputes, mortgage modifications and mortgage-related fraud, credit repair, debt relief, predatory lending and illegal or abusive debt collection tactics.)
3. Home improvement/construction. (Shoddy work, failure to start or complete the job.)
4. Retail sales. (False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, failure to deliver and problems with rebates, coupons or gift cards.)
5. Utilities. (Service and billing disputes.)
6. Services. (Shoddy work, failure to have required licenses, failure to perform.)
7. (Tie) Internet sales. (Deceptive practices and failure to deliver purchases.) Landlord/tenant. (Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities, deposit and rent disputes, and illegal eviction tactics.)
8. Fraud. (Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries, work-at-home schemes, grant offers, fake check scams and others.)
9. Real estate, which is new to the top 10 list. (Timeshare sales and resales, retirement communities and assisted living facilities, and real estate fraud, other than mortgages.)
10. (Tie) Household goods. (Failure to deliver, faulty repairs, misrepresentations.) Home solicitations (Misrepresentations, etc. in door-to-door, telemarketing or mail solicitations and do-not-call violations.)
The five fastest-growing complaints were about fraud, debt collection, do-not-call violations, mortgage abuses and home improvement.
Budget cuts and limited resources were most frequently cited by state and local agencies as their biggest challenges. Another major challenge concerned the increasing incidence of scammers being located in other countries, complicating enforcement efforts.
The agencies surveyed had numerous suggestions for better protecting consumers, including outlawing mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer contracts, beefing up legal protections against unwanted online tracking and other invasions of privacy, and stiffening penalties for doing business without required licenses.
For the full 58-page report on consumer complaints:
The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau collects consumer complaints about mortgages, credit cards, bank accounts and student, auto or consumer loans to track trends. To file a complaint, visit www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint /.