Sources Of Help
At the federal level, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has the primary responsibility to protect the interests and rights of consumers. Through enforcement actions, the commission can order parties to stop practices that violate federal consumer protection statutes and to pay fines. The FTC encourages people to file complaints about problems with deceptive or unfair practices through its online complaint process at www.ftc.gov/. While it cannot resolve individual complaints, the commission relies on its complaint database to track problems and initiate investigations. Other federal agencies involved with consumer issues include the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Consumer Information Center. The United States Postal Inspectors investigate mail fraud and work closely with U.S. Attorneys in prosecuting cases.
At the state level, the attorney general has similar enforcement responsibility over state consumer protections. The attorney general may have a staff of investigators and prosecutors who concentrate on elder consumer issues. Many states have consumer protection offices either within the attorney general's office or as a separate state agency. These offices receive complaints, investigate and prosecute state fraud violations, and provide consumer education.
Many other state agencies have consumer protection responsibilities. The utilities commission may regulate the cost of residential gas and electricity. The department of weights and measures checks grocery store scanners and gasoline pumps for accuracy. Licensing of home contractors, hearing aid dispensers, and funeral directors offers a measure of protection when a service problem develops. Insurance commissioners determine what insurance products can be sold in the state.
As with any other type of legal problem, consumers can go to court with consumer claims. However, private litigation in the consumer area is not that commonplace. With claims involving smaller amounts of money, small claims courts may offer a practical solution for the individual consumer. A group of aggrieved consumers can band together to bring a class action suit, particularly if a company's practice has affected a large number of people. In between small claims court and class actions, the individual consumer may have difficulty finding a private attorney to handle the consumer dispute. The cost to bring the case may be higher than the potential recovery. The losing party generally does not have to pay the other side's attorney's fees unless the consumer protection statute expressly authorizes recovery of attorneys fee to the successful consumer. The consumer runs the chance of losing the case and having a large bill from legal counsel, if the lawyer will take the case in the first place. The American Bar Association reports that the number of private lawyers with a strong practice focus in consumer law may stand at about two thousand. Many of these attorneys built their practice on prior experience handling consumer matters as legal services attorneys or assistant state attorneys general.
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