Consumer complaints to Washington attorney general highest since 2002

Washington consumers filed 25,197 written complaints with the Attorney General’s Office in 2008 – the greatest number since 2002. Gripes about health care businesses and commercial banks moved into the top 10 and telecommunications maintained its stronghold as the industry to generate the most criticism.

The Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division recently released its annual Top 20 list of consumer complaint categories in conjunction with National Consumer Protection Week.

“Year after year, the same handful of industries are generating the most complaints but what I find reassuring is that our Consumer Resource Centers continue to resolve most of those disputes and help consumers recoup millions of dollars,” Attorney General Rob McKenna said.

Consumer Protection Division staff had predicted that complaints about collection agencies, which had been steadily rising for several years, might bump phone companies out of the top spot. But collectors slipped back down to third place with 1,431 complaints in 2008, allowing retailers to pop back into No. 2 with 1,494 complaints while telecommunications, with a total of 1,728 complaints, clung onto pole position for the 12th consecutive year. Complaints about auto sales ranked fourth among the categories.

Staff reached out to businesses in 2008, starting a dialog with debt collectors and hosting meetings with auto dealer associations in an effort to reduce complaints and strengthen compliance with consumer protection laws.

Volunteers and staff in the office’s four Consumer Resource Centers process consumer complaints and attempt to resolve them through informal mediation without picking a side. The service is provided at no cost to consumers or businesses. The centers recovered $6.6 million for consumers during the fiscal year from July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008. (Nearly $6.9 million was recovered during the 2008 calendar year.)

Complaints that can’t be resolved through mediation can sometimes prompt the office to launch a formal investigation and pursue enforcement action. The Consumer Protection Division recovered more than $11 million for consumers through litigation during the last fiscal year.

The Consumer Protection Division also administers the state’s Lemon Law program, which saved car buyers about $3.5 million during the fiscal year, and a new Manufactured Housing Landlord-Tenant Dispute Resolution Program.

Some complaints received by the office can’t be handled through mediation or even civil lawsuits. The office refers matters to criminal prosecutors, when appropriate, as well as other state regulators.

McKenna and Consumer Protection Division Chief Doug Walsh agree that prevention is the most important tool, particularly with scams involving counterfeit checks and wire transfer fraud. The office began specifically tracking advance-fee scams last year and recorded 395 complaints.

“We often liken fighting fraudsters to the Whack-a-Mole game; you knock one down and another pops up,” McKenna said. “With prevention, we’re teaching people how to avoid the scams in the first place.”

Top 20 Complaint Categories

and number of complaints

lodged in 2008

1 Telecommunications 1,728

2 Retail Sales 1,494

3 Collections 1,431

4 Auto Sales 1,402

5 Electronic Shopping

6 Contractors 868

7 Books/Magazines/Directories 785

8 Cable Networks 667

9 Health Care 639

10 Commercial Banking 599

11 Credit Card Issuers 544

12 Auto Repair 433

13 Mortgage Lending 425

14 Residential Landlord/Tenant 416

15 Internet Service Providers 403

16 Advance Fee Fraud 395

17 Insurance 387

18 Lending/Transfer Agents 361

19 Travel 351

20 Health and Diet Clubs 321

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