Collection agencies earn most complaints

Washington consumers filed more complaints about collection agencies with the Attorney General’s Office in 2009 than any other industry. Gripes about collection agencies have been rising in recent years but it took a single complaint to ultimately move the industry into pole position and bump telecommunications, which had maintained the top spot for at least a decade.

“Anyone who runs a business and meets a payroll knows it’s important for customers to pay their bills on time. That’s why collection agencies play an important role,” Attorney General Rob McKenna said. “But no one likes to be on the receiving end of a collection call, especially in times like these. And it only takes a few shady collectors to make the entire industry look bad.”

The Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division released its annual Top 20 list of consumer complaint categories Feb. 3.

Telecommunications, which primarily includes phone companies, rang up 1,670 complaints last year, down from 1,728 in 2008.

Collections agencies, meanwhile, garnered 1,671 complaints compared to 1,431 in 2008. That’s nearly 7 percent of the 24,928 written complaints the Consumer Resource Centers handled last year.

Complaints about cable networks and program distribution have also been a steady climber, moving to No. 4 last year with 1,465 complaints – more than twice as many as 2008, when the industry ranked No. 8. Lawsuits involving DIRECTV and DISH Network were a driving factor.

Retailers and auto sales rounded out the top five.

Volunteers and staff in the office’s four Consumer Resource Centers process consumer complaints and attempt to resolve them through informal mediation. The service is provided at no cost to consumers or businesses and there’s no legal determination of who is right or wrong.

“Our Consumer Resource Centers have a stellar track record of helping consumers and businesses to resolve the majority of disputes,” McKenna said, “saving both sides the time, expenses and headaches typically associated with litigation.”

The centers recovered $7.1 million for consumers during the last calendar year ($6.4 million during the fiscal year from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009).

In addition to helping resolve written complaints, the centers also serve as a clearinghouse for general information about scams and other consumer concerns. Staff and volunteers handled 49,536 phone calls from the public in 2009.

Complaints that can’t be resolved by the resource centers sometimes prompt the office to launch a formal investigation and pursue enforcement action. The Consumer Protection Division recovered nearly $2.2 million for consumers through civil litigation during the 2008-2009 fiscal year.

The Consumer Protection Division also administers the state’s Lemon Law program, which saved car buyers almost $2.7 million the fiscal year, and a Manufactured Housing Landlord-Tenant Dispute Resolution Program.

Industries generating the most complaints during 2009 with the attorney general’s office.

1 – Collection Agencies

2 – Telecommunications

3 – Retail Sales

4 – Cable Networks & Program Distribution

5 – Auto Sales

6 – Electronic Shopping

7 – Commercial Banking

8 – Credit Card Issuers

9 – Books / Magazines and Directory Publishers

10 – Health Care

11 – Contractors

12 – Mortgage Lending

13 – Financing

14 – Advance Fee Fraud

15 – Consumer Lending & Transfer Agents

16 – Auto Repair

17 – Internet Service Providers

18 – Travel

19 – Insurance

20 – Health and Diet Clubs

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