Welcome to the 1997 Consumer's Resource Handbook. It is most appropriate that this year's edition is dedicated to the memory of Secretary of Commerce Ronald Brown, a man who ardently supported consumer rights and who recognized the importance of this handbook in empowering American consumers with the knowledge and resources to make prudent, informed choices.
Today's increasingly competitive marketplace offers us a broad and diverse array of products and services. To select among them wisely, we must understand our rights as consumers and the standards of quality we should expect. The U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, through publications such as this one, plays a vital role in educating the public on key consumer issues, protecting our rights, and enhancing our ability to make knowledgeable purchasing decisions.
I encourage you to use the valuable information in this handbook. By learning to choose and buy carefully and responsibly, you are helping to build a better and brighter future for all Americans.
It is appropriate and fitting that this edition of the Consumer's Resource Handbook is dedicated to the late Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown. In many ways his life was dedicated to empowering people. From his career as a New York City welfare caseworker to his tenure as Secretary of Commerce, he inspired people to strive to do their very best. Whether he was leading a business trade mission to a foreign land or meeting with his employees in the office, he empowered us all through his example and leadership.
At the Commerce Department, he encouraged our employees to carry out the "Right to Service," established by President Clinton in their every day contacts with the public, our customers, to ensure that the Department delivers exceptional service. He continually supported the Department's consumer affairs efforts and last year held a special meeting with the winners of the Office of Consumer Affairs' National Consumer Week consumer awareness contest. He spent time online with STAT-USA customers answering questions on Customer Service Day to highlight the importance of serving our customers. He also understood the significance of consumers in the global marketplace.
Ron Brown was the first Secretary of Commerce to recognize the importance of the Consumer's Resource Handbook through the Department's financial support. The Handbook is an important educational tool for consumers as they seek to resolve their complaints or to acquire information from corporations and government offices.
On behalf of all the employees of the U.S. Department of Commerce, I thank you for dedicating this Handbook in the memory of the late Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown.
Secretary of Commerce
It is with pride and sadness that we dedicate this edition of the Consumer's Resource Handhook to Ronald H. Brown, the late Secretary of Commerce. Secretary Brown had a long history of consumer advocacy and was a strong supporter of the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs. While we are saddened by his sudden passing, we will always remember his devotion to country, his untiring efforts on behalf of consumers and his support of a free and fair marketplace. His legacy continues.
This ninth edition of the Consumer's Resource Handbook builds on the tradition of being a strong and effective tool for consumers. In April 1996, this Handbook received the prestigious "Mobius" award, presented by the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business (SOCAP). The award recognized the Handbook's value in helping consumers make informed decisions. This honor attests to the need and usefulness of the Handbook, which focuses on consumer issues that affect us all.
The information presented is based on the premise that consumers need to know their rights and how to make the right choices. Indeed, there are a number of laws which protect your rights before and after purchasing a product or service and many of those laws are referenced here. Today's marketplace, which is expanding rapidly through electronic shopping, has a wide variety of options for efficient, high quality goods and services to meet your needs and your pocketbook. But there, too, are numerous scams and frauds which take advantage of unsuspecting consumers.
This handbook offers information and advice to help you gain knowledge about your rights and about how to make the right choices--and, yes, how to protect yourself against unscrupulous dealers. Whether you are acquiring a product such as a car or making an investment in securities or seeking a service, you will find points to consider, questions to ask, and steps to take before and after you purchase an item or sign a contract.
I believe this Handbook will serve as a handy reference for you. It will help guide and protect you in the marketplace, so that whatever you buy, your choice will be a good one. We are proud to be at your service.
Leslie L. Byrne
Special Assistant to the President and Director
Department of Agriculture
The Honorable Daniel R. Glickman
Department of Defense
The Honorable William J. Perry
Department of Energy
The Honorable Hazel R. O'Leary
Department of Justice
The Honorable Janet Reno
Department of Veterans Affairs
The Honorable Jesse Brown
Agency for International Development
The Honorable J. Brian Atwood
Consumer Product Safety Commission |
The Honorable Ann Brown
Federal Communications Commission
The Honorable Reed E. Hundt
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
The Honorable Ricki Helfer
Federal Trade Commission
The Honorable Robert Pitofsky
Securities and Exchange Commission
The Honorable Arthur Levitt, Jr.
Small Business Administration
The Honorable Philip Lader
The information in this Consumer's Resource Handbook is presented in two parts: (1) tips on buying products and services and (2) contacts for information and assistance.
Part I of the Handbook, "Buying Smart," gives tips on getting the most for your money, handling your own complaint and writing a complaint letter. Part I also provides tips on a number of consumer issues such as choosing and using credit, protecting personal privacy and avoiding many types of frauds and scams.
Part II of the Handbook, "Consumer Assistance Directory," lists offices you can contact for help with problems or questions. This section provides individual names (where available), addresses, and telephone and fax numbers for contacts ranging from consumer organizations to corporations to government agencies at city, county, state and Federal levels. Some of these consumer assistance groups are highlighted below; for a complete list of agencies in Part II, see the "Contents."
Throughout the sections, a number of electronic addresses are listed for access through the worldwide web. The websites listed here omit http:// and begin with www (in the interest of space). Listed also are telephone numbers which provide access for hearing and speech impaired consumers; they are in bold type. A subject "Index" is at the end of the Handbook to help you locate information about specific topics.
There are a number of national organizations whose missions are
defined as consumer assistance, protection and/or advocacy.
Several of these organizations assist consumers directly; others
are interested in hearing from consumers about problems and
concerns; most, though not all, develop educational materials for
consumers. Addresses, telephone numbers and descriptions of
30 of these organizations are listed in the "National Consumer Organizations" section of this Handbook, beginning on page 31.
There are 162 Better Business Bureaus (BBBs) and branches in the United States. These Bureaus are non-profit organizations supported primarily by local businesses. BBB's offer a variety of services, including general consumer information on products or services, business reliability reports, background information on local businesses and organizations, and records of a company's complaint-handling performance.
The Council of Better Business Bureaus, which is supported by national companies and the nation's BBBs, also offers consumer education programs, reports on charitable organizations, alternative dispute resolution services and assistance with complaints about the truthfulness and accuracy of national advertising, including children's advertising. A description of the Council is on page 32 and a list of BBBs operating in the United States begins on page 34.
Many companies have consumer affairs or customer relations departments to answer questions or help resolve consumer complaints. The addresses and telephone numbers of more than 650 companies are listed in the "Corporate Consumer Contacts" section of this Handbook, beginning on page 39. If you write to the company, you may use the sample letter on page 8 as a guide.
Most foreign and American car manufacturers have national or regional offices which handle consumer complaints not resolved by your local car dealer. The list of "Car Manufacturers" begins on page 64.
There are nearly 40,000 trade and professional associations in the United States representing a variety of interests (for example, banking, insurance, clothing manufacturing) and professions (for example, accountants, lawyers, doctors, therapists).
Some of these associations and their members have established programs to help consumers with complaints not resolved at the point of purchase.
Trade associations have various consumer functions, which are described in National Trade & Professional Associations of the United States. Check your local library for this book and related sources of help.
A list of "Trade Associations' and Other Dispute Resolution Programs" begins on page 68.
If you want to file a complaint, call your local consumer protection office to learn what you need to do. A list of "State, County and City Government Consumer Protection Offices" begins on page 71.
In addition to state and local consumer offices, many states have special agencies and commissions to handle consumer questions and complaints about services for senior consumers and for disabled persons, as well as services provided by financial institutions and insurance companies. Other state agencies regulate securities, utilities and weights and measures. These state agencies are listed separately, beginning on page 85.
In addition, a variety of other helpful community services might be available in your area. For example, county and state Cooperative Extension Services offer information about health, safety, product comparisons, financial planning and nutritional needs. Information about these and other state and local services can be found at your library and in the telephone directory in the city/municipal, county or state government listings.
Interested consumers will find a list of "Military Commissary and Exchange Offices" on page 105. The list includes the regional offices and headquarters for all the Armed Forces exchanges and commissaries.
Many Federal Government agencies can help you with consumer questions and complaints. A number of these agencies have enforcement authority and/or complaint-handling responsibilities. The Federal agencies listed, beginning on page 107, respond to consumer complaints and inquiries.
Counseling services provide assistance to individuals having difficulty budgeting their money and/or meeting necessary monthly expenses. Many organizations, including credit unions, family service centers and religious organizations, offer some type of free or low-cost credit counseling.
The Consumer Credit Counseling Service (CCCS) is one non-profit organization that provides money management techniques, debt payment plans and educational programs. Counselors take into consideration the needs of the client as well as the needs of the creditor when working out a debt repayment plan. You can find the CCCS office nearest you by contacting the National Foundation for Consumer Credit, Inc., 8611 Second Avenue, Suite 100, Silver Spring, MD 209103372; Toll free: 800388CCCS.
Private and voluntary consumer organizations usually are created to advocate specific consumer interests. In some communities, they will help individual consumers with complaints. However, they have no enforcement authority. To find out if such a group is in your community, contact your state or local government consumer protection office. A list of the state and local offices begins on page 71.
The Federal Information Center (FIC), administered by the General Services Administration, can help you find information about the Federal Government's agencies, services, and programs. The FIC can also tell you which office to contact for help with problems.
You may call toll free from anywhere in the United States to 8006889889. Users of text telephones (TDD/TTY) may also call toll free by dialing 8003262996.
The FIC is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. local time, except in Alaska (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and Hawaii (7 a.m. to 3 p.m.).
The Consumer Information Catalog lists approximately 200 free or low-cost Federal booklets with helpful information for consumers. Topics include careers and education, cars, child care, the environment, Federal benefits, financial planning, food and nutrition, health, housing, small business and more. This free Catalog is published quarterly by the Consumer Information Center of the U.S. General Services Administration. Single copies of the Catalog only may be ordered by sending your name and address to Catalog, Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81009 or by calling 7199484000. Non-profit groups that can distribute 25 copies or more each quarter automatically can receive copies by writing for a bulk mail card.
You may visit the website at www.pueblo.gsa.gov or dial the bulletin board system on 2022087679.
The local library can be a good source of help. Many of the publications mentioned in this Handbook can be found in public libraries. Some university and other private libraries also allow individuals to use their reference materials. Check your local telephone directory for the location of nearby libraries.
Local newspapers and radio and television stations often have "Action Line" or "Hot Line" services. These programs might be able to help consumers with their problems. Sometimes these programs, because of their influence in the community, are successful in helping to resolve consumer complaints. Some action lines select only the most severe problems or those that occur most frequently. They might not be able to handle every complaint.
To find these services, check with your local newspapers, radio and television stations, or local library.
Many state agencies license or register members of various professions, including doctors, plumbers, electricians, car repair shops, employment agencies, beauticians, and television and radio repair shops. In some states, local consumer agencies license or register some professions.
In addition to setting licensing standards, these boards also issue rules and regulations; prepare and give examinations; issue, deny or revoke licenses; bring disciplinary actions; and handle consumer complaints.
Many boards have referral services or consumer education materials to help you select a professional. If you contact a licensing agency about a complaint, the agency will contact the professional on your behalf and, if necessary, might conduct an investigation and take disciplinary action against the professional. This action can include probation or license suspension or revocation.
To find the local office of an occupational or professional licensing board, check your local telephone directory under the headings of "Licensing Boards" or "Professional Associations," or look for the name of the individual agency. If you need help locating the right office, contact your state or local consumer office.
Please note that some of the sources of help listed in the Consumer's Resource Handbook have a policy of declining complaints from consumers who have sought prior legal counsel.
Small claims courts were established to resolve disputes involving claims for small debts and accounts. While the maximum amounts that can be claimed or awarded differ from state to state, court procedures generally are simple, inexpensive, quick and informal. Court fees are minimal, and you often get your filing fee back if you win your case. Generally, you will not need a lawyer. In fact, in some states, lawyers are not permitted. If you live in a state that allows lawyers and the party you are suing brings one, do not be intimidated. The court is informal, and most judges make allowances for consumers who appear without lawyers.
Remember, even though the court is informal, the ruling must be followed, just like the ruling of any other court.
If the party bringing the suit wins the case, the party who lost often will follow the court's decision without additional legal action. Sometimes, however, losing parties will not obey the decision. In these cases, the winning party can go back to court and ask for the order to be "enforced." Depending on local laws, the court might, for example, order property to be taken by law enforcement officials and sold. The winning party will get the money from the sale, up to the amount owed. Alternatively, if the person who owes the money receives a salary, the court might order the employer to garnish or deduct money from each paycheck and give it to the winner of the lawsuit.
Check your local telephone book under the municipal, county or state government headings for small claims court offices. When you contact the court, ask the court clerk how to use the small claims court. Many state and local consumer agencies have consumer educational material to prepare you for small claims court (see page 71). To better understand the process, sit in on a small claims court session before taking your case to court.
Many small claims courts have created dispute resolution programs to help citizens resolve their disputes. These dispute resolution processes (e.g., mediation and conciliation) often simplify the process. For example, in mediation, both people involved in the small claims dispute meet, sometimes in the evenings or on weekends, and with the assistance of a neutral, third-party mediator, discuss the situation and create their own agreement.
The rate of success is high for dispute resolution through small claims court. Considering this, when you contact your small claims court, ask first about its mediation or conciliation process.
For additional information about dispute resolution, contact the American Bar Association, Section on Dispute Resolution, 740 15th Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20005, 2026621680.
Legal Aid offices help individuals who cannot afford to hire private lawyers. There are more than 1,000 of these offices around the country staffed by lawyers, paralegals and law students. All offer free legal services to those who qualify. Funding is provided by a variety of sources, including Federal, state and local governments and private donations. Many law schools nationwide conduct clinics in which law students, as part of their training, assist practicing lawyers with these cases.
Legal Aid offices generally offer legal assistance with such problems as landlord-tenant relations, credit, utilities, family issues (e.g., divorce and adoption), foreclosure and home equity fraud, social security, welfare, unemployment and workers' compensation. Each Legal Aid office has its own board of directors which determines the priorities of the office and the kinds of cases handled. If the Legal Aid office in your area does not handle your type of case, it should be able to refer you to other local, state or national organizations that can provide advice or help. Check the telephone directory to find the address and telephone number of the Legal Aid office near you. If you would like a directory of Legal Aid offices around the country, contact the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, 1625 K Street, N.W., 8th Floor, Washington, DC 20006, 2024520620.
The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) was created by Congress in 1974. There are LSC offices in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam and Micronesia. To find the LSC office nearest you, check the telephone directory, call the Federal Information Center (FIC) toll free on 8006889889 or call the LSC Public Affairs Office at 2023368800. For a directory of all LSC programs, write or call:
Legal Services Corporation
750 1st Street, N.E.
Washington, DC 20002
Complaints about a lawyer should be referred to your state, county or city bar association.