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Who You Gonna Call? The Government.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Rhonda Allen
April 20, 2019

Caveat Emptor.  With the rise of consumerism and consumer complaints, there is an increased expectation of government to promote and protect the interest of consumers. Public administrators hear the harsh criticisms about service and disapproval of government intervention—until things go wrong. Then who do consumers call? The Government! Consumer protection agencies have made great strides in using technology to assist in consumer complaints via their online complaint system, but the rest is sheer human capital.

At the federal level, the Dodd-Frank Act 2010 promoted United States financial stability through accountability and transparency in the financial system. To that end, it also established the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that has a central mission of protecting consumers from unfair, unethical and deceptive financial practices. CFPB provides numerous consumer tools and resources, many of which educate and empower individuals.  Consumers will find it easy to access the Consumer Complaint Database and the link to, “Submit a complaint,” both on the front page of the website. CFBP received 320,000  consumer complaints in 2017. On face value, there is access to and transparency in the overwhelming amount of information for consumers. Further evaluation of performance is the next step to ensure consumers’ protection.   

Other federal agencies tasked with consumer protections include the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that provides information on recalls, road safety and vehicle technology. NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) receives 50,000 website visits per day, and investigators screen 75,000 complaints annually.

The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) offers information on recalls, safety education and regulations.  Via an email from CPSC’s Clearinghouse, in 2017, CPSC received approximately 17,100 complaints. The complaint sources included consumer, local, state and federal sources, health care professionals, medical examiners and child care providers.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), “Regulates interstate and international communication by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all 50 states, D.C. and United States territories.”  In 2017, the FCC took in 331,448 consumer complaints.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), “Protects consumers and promotes competition.” Through its Bureau of Consumer Protection, individuals may file a grievance on Robocalls, telephone scams, identity theft and deceptive practices in the marketplace. FTC stores all consumer reports in the Consumer Sentinel Network (Sentinel)—a cyber investigative tool only available to law enforcement agencies. During 2018, Sentinel received nearly three million consumer reports.

States and counties have several consumer protection agencies as well. Examples of such agencies include Offices of the Attorney General, banking authorities, securities administration, insurance regulations and actual state consumer protection agencies. The key is to ensure consumers know where to look for such assistance. USA.gov provides an eDirectory of many state resources including information on where and how to file a consumer complaint. Consumers will also find links to file charges against the government itself.

Counties provide consumer and business affairs divisions that make complaint resolution and support available. In many cases, these public agencies offer full services including initial complaint intake, meditation, prosecution (or referral), advocacy and educational resources. This list of agencies is not exhaustive but gives a snapshot of consumer protections provided by the public sector.

The streamlined process for complaint intake allows agencies to handle the increasing volume. But a faulty gadget replaces a predatory scheme, and an unethical business is just moments away from surfacing. Deceptive practices and safety issues occur at all levels. In response, many of these agencies are providing guidelines and regulations (yes, regulations—they exist for a reason) for products and services, but more emphasis on enforcement is needed. An increased focus on prevention could also alleviate the impact on daily service operations. Public agencies tasks with consumer protections are working on increased access, transparency and measurable outcomes that will, hopefully, lead to better consumer knowledge, business products and safety.

The public sector has taken up the charge for consumer protection and advocacy, but individuals have a primary role in protecting themselves.  Common sense and education are crucial, and if it sounds too good to be true, well, you know how it ends.  Despite the all too often criticisms, government agencies provide much-needed services. While not all outcomes are ideal, recognizing the actual effort of these agencies is not trivial; give the government some credit (no pun intended).

Do you believe in UFO’s, Astral Projections, Mental Telepathy, ESP, Clairvoyance, Spirit Photography, Telekinetic Movement, Full-trance Mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis”…and consumer protections?

Author: Dr. Rhonda Allen, Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs | Northern Arizona University. Contact info: [email protected]

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