Florida consumer complaints were up slightly in 2010 compared to recent years, with the biggest gripes having to do with credit card companies and banks, phone service providers and, of course, telemarketers.
Last year the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services received 40,611 written complaints from residents, up from from about 38,000 in 2009 and 37,227 in 2008. The department “successfully closed or resolved” 35,831 of those complaints, said agency spokesman Sterling Ivey.
But when it comes to protecting your wallet and rights as a consumer, statistics are not as important as knowing how to avoid being ripped off or mistreated when paying for a product or service – and where to turn when it happens. No surprise that unwanted phone calls during dinner time or similar behavior from telemarketers account for the top category of Florida complaints. Telemarketers top the list most years.
Here are the top Florida consumer complaints of 2010 and what you should know:
Telemarketers, 8,599 complaints: Telemarketers calling consumers who signed up with the state’s Do Not Call list to avoid such calls typically accounts for the majority of complaints in this category. Some people don’t realize, however, that some solicitors are exempt, such as calls from political campaigns and charities. To protect yourself from the rest, call the consumer services department at 800-435-7352 or visit http://www.800helpfla.com. Expect to pay a $10 registration fee and annual $5 renewal fee.
Many other telemarketer complaints deal with issues of fraud, identity theft and misleading information. Never provide personal information over the phone unless you know exactly who you are dealing with. Don’t fall for pressure tactics and seek written information about guarantees, warranties or rebates. before you agree to pay for any product or service.
Credit and banking, 2,528 complaints: Unexpected or unfair charges related to credi card charges, bank statements and overdraft plans make this a list topper. Knowing your rights helps. For instance a recent federal requires banks to receive customer permission before enrollment in an overdraft plan, however the rule covers only ATM and debit cards.
Always ask your bank or credit card issuer about all fees related to your accounts and check your bank statements carefully for mistakes. If you find one, contact the company immediately. Waiting too long could mean you end up paying for charges you didn’t intend.
Communications, 2,248 complaints: Confusion about fees and taxes found on your home phone bill come into play here. To help, the Public Service Commission publishes a brochure that can help you decipher your statements and billing terms. Call 800-342-3552 or visit http://www.floridapsc.com.
Vacation and travel programs, 1,977 complaints: This is your category if you sign up and pay to enroll in vacation-related programs and end up not getting all of the discounts and freebies as promised. Nobody needs to sign up for a travel program to find travel deals. For instance, reputable Websites like SeatGuru.com, Kayak.com and Traelocity.com can help you find bargains on airfare, hotels and more.
Whatever travel company you use, pay with credit card to make it easier to resolve disputes. And you have a legal right to cancel a contract if the travel club receives your written request before midnight on the third business day after you signed the contract. Always send such requests via certified mail or deliver in person.
Motor vehicle repairs, 1,902 complaints: Repair shops must be registered with the state consumer services department. Call 800-435-7352 to verify a shop’s registration and check complaint history. Repair bills cannot exceed a written estimate by more than $10 or 10 percent, with a maximum of $50, without your approval, as provided by Florida law.
Real estate sales and brokers, 1,627 complaints: Loan modification problems is a big culprit here. You should know state law does not allow mortgage loan modifiers to collect cash in advance of work. Also anyone doing modifications must be a mortgage broker licensed through the Florida Office of Financial Regulation. To check a license, call 800-848-3792 or visit http://www.flofr.com.
Motor vehicle sales, 1,492 complaints: Cars gone bad before their time is top complaint. Florida’s Lemon Law protects car buyers who end up with defective vehicles, but only if they were leased or purchased new. It’s important to run a vehicle history report, such as CarFax, before buying a used car. Depending on the price of the car, you may not want to just rely on a history report since they may contain errors. It is always good to ask a mechanic you trust to check out the car before putting money down. To report a rolled-back odometer or use a vehicle identification number to find a previous car owner call 850-617-2000.
Landlord and tenant disputes, 1,415 complaints: State law requires landlords to give tenants renting by the month 15 days notice before eviction, unless they have a signed lease waiving those rights. Avoid such waivers when you can. And don’t provide a deposit until you are absolutely sure you want to rent the property. And get in writing how your deposit will be used and how much you should expect to be returned.
Medical issues, 1,046 complaints: Unexpected or incorrect prescription drug costs and limited insurance coverage often lead to consumer complaints. Check your bills carefully for errors or duplicate charges. Contact your insurer as soon as possible should you find a problem. In the event the insurer wrongly refuses to remove incorrect charges or cover its share of the medical bill, call the state Subscriber Assistance Program at 888-419-3456.
Have a complaint of your own? Call the state consumer services department at 800-435-7352 or visit http://www.800helpfla.com.
Daniel Vasquez can be reached at dvasquez@SunSentinel.com, or 954-356-4219, or 561-243-6600, ext. 4219. To see more columns from Daniel Vasquez, go to SunSentinel.com/vasquez.
Check out Daniel Vasquez’s Consumer Talk blog for ways to spend your money wisely, use technology to make life easier and keep your family safe and healthy at SunSentinel.com/consumerblog.