Economic uncertainty was the source of many consumer complaints in 2011.
Unscrupulous contractors, bureaucratic banks and plain old scammers took big chunks out of the wallets of consumers who either needed help or were looking for a fair deal. Other consumers ended up doing business with companies that were either careless or simply made hard-to-fix mistakes.
Here are some of the lessons we learned last year from those who were willing to share their stories with Bamboozled.
Consumers looking for some relief in this economy led the scam complaints we heard this year.
Like Shannon Condon, a woman who was promised help with a short sale from Dan Dekleine, a man who does not hold a real estate license or a license to practice law, and therefore cannot legally complete a short sale in New Jersey. Condon received a $1,300 refund after our story ran.
And like the dozens of customers who complained to Bamboozled about vacation travel clubs run by Daryl Turner. Turner, who signed a $3 million settlement with the state and promised not to work in the travel business for five years, was later arrested on a theft-by-deception charge related to the travel clubs. That case is still ongoing, while most of the customers, who only wanted discounted vacations, are still waiting for their refunds.
The lesson? If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t sign on with anyone until you do your due diligence. A simple Google search can reveal plenty.
BAD BUSINESS PRACTICES AND REFUNDS
There was no shortage of questionable deals in which customers paid for a product or a service they didn’t receive, or what they received wasn’t what they were promised.
Like the many customers of Aqua-Dri Waterproofing, which on several occasions chronicled by Bamboozled would not return deposits to customers even though customers canceled contracts within the time stated on the contract.
Owner Al Demola and his wife Kim Costa are now linked to a second company, Thrifty Waterproofing of Cranbury, whose customers shared similar experiences as those of Aqua-Dri customers. Some people received refunds, others did not, and still others are pursuing their cases in court.
Or like those who rented medical equipment from Community Surgical Supply of Toms River, a company that signed a $58,000 settlement with the state and agreed to make far-reaching changes to its billing practices after Bamboozled profiled several customers who were wrongly billed.
Then there were unfulfilled but fully paid orders by customers of rug dealer Einstein Moomjy in the weeks before the store filed for bankruptcy. Many customers remain empty-handed. Others got their money back.
There was the 81-year-old man who fought to get his refund from a WoW-Work Out World gym.
The lesson? Check out whatever company you’re considering doing business with. Ask your friends for recommendations, then contact the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs (973-504-6200 or nj.gov/oag/ca) and the Better Business Bureau (609 588-0808 or bbb.org) to see whether there are outstanding complaints.
If it’s a home improvement contractor, make sure they are properly licensed with the state (973-504-6200 or newjersey.mylicense.com/verification). If the business checks out, read the contract carefully, don’t sign anything you don’t understand and don’t take a verbal promise for anything.
BANKING WOES, CREDIT CHECKS AND RED TAPE
Banking was ugly for consumers last year, whether it was threatened debit card fees, denied mortgage modifications or loan payments that were misplaced.
Like the loan payments of Carly Chuako, a Hopatcong woman whose two loans with Wachovia — later Wells Fargo — were reported as past due even though she had proof of payment. Then there was John McGuire’s missing furniture payment to Raymour & Flanigan. And Andrea Kahn’s lost payment to the city of Newark for a traffic ticket.
Those were all sorted out.
But some tougher issues are ongoing. Like Mark Conca’s fight to get a modification on his Caldwell home, which Bank of America once put in foreclosure because it said he wasn’t making payments. But he was paying — on time, every time.
It was another tough year for customers of the EPPICard, the state sanctioned debit card through which more than 70,000 New Jersey families receive child-support payments. We helped many customers dispute fraud losses on their cards after the customer service people at Affiliated Computer Services (ACS) were unable to help.
To date, Bamboozled continues to receive complaints, so we’re wondering whether ACS is ever going to change its system, or whether New Jersey is ever going to dump the service provider.
The lesson? Keep meticulous records, maintain a clear paper trail and don’t give up. Escalate the problem to management or the owner until you find someone who can fix it. If something goes wrong, keep an eye on your credit report and dispute inaccuracies. You can get your three credit reports for free once a year from AnnualCreditReport.com.
Like cheap toys, poorly made electronics and some home repair contracts, New Year’s resolutions are easy to break.
We hope companies, government agencies and all those who work with consumers try to do a little better on the service front in 2012.
Forever optimistic, we wish the next year will be filled with exemplary customer service reps who go the extra mile, banks that cut through the red tape to help struggling homeowners and government agencies that make bureaucracy a little easier to navigate.
If a mistake happens — and of course they will — we hope companies will own up to it and fix the problem.
And just in case they don’t, we pledge to keep fighting on your behalf.
That’s Bamboozled’s New Year’s resolution.
A final note to consumers: While it’s incredibly frustrating to spend time waiting for customer service reps to help, stay focused on the problem and how the rep can help you fix it. Remember, customer service reps aren’t the ones who make “corporate policy,” and it’s usually not the rep on the phone who made the mistake that’s affecting you. Be nice. Be polite. You’ll increase your chances of having a good customer service experience, and you’ll motivate the reps to go higher up the ladder, if necessary, to make sure your problem is corrected.