Oregon is now one of a small handful of states that allow consumers to search for complaints about businesses online
Oregon Attorney General John Kroger today kicked off National Consumer Protection Week by unveiling a new online search feature that will allow consumers to look for complaints against businesses. Consumers can access this feature at www.oregonattorneygeneral.gov/beinformed.
Attorney General Kroger also announced the Oregon Department of Justice Top 10 Consumer Complaint List for 2009. Among the findings: the Department of Justice received 14,021 written complaints, up 13% from 2008. Complaints filed by Spanish-speakers increased 20 percent, in part due to increased outreach by the Oregon Department of Justice, though the overall number of Spanish complaints remained very low.
"In this recession, scam artists and crooked companies are targeting seniors and people who have lost their jobs and their homes," Attorney General Kroger said. "This new search feature will help Oregonians protect themselves and their families."
The new Oregon Department of Justice Consumer Complaint search feature can be found here. Last week, Attorney General Kroger offered Oregon businesses a preview of the search feature in order to get their ideas and feedback.
Below are highlights from the Top 10 Consumer Complaint List for 2009.
For the fourth year in a row, telecommunications companies ranked #1 on Oregon's Top 10 Consumer Complaint List with 1,506 written complaints for 2009. The telecommunications industry receiving the most complaints were satellite television service providers with 398 written complaints. Cellular telephone service providers claimed the second spot with 291 complaints, while "bundled" service providers and internet service providers ended the year with 200 and 199 complaints respectively.
Attorney General Kroger has pledged to aggressively pursue legitimate claims against telecommunications companies. Last November, Oregon helped lead a multi-state investigation of VONAGE, one of the nation's largest internet telephone service providers, that focused on consumer complaints about misleading practices related to its cancellation policies. The settlement required VONAGE to significantly change its marketing practices, issue refunds to customers, and honor future cancellation requests. VONAGE agreed to pay a total of $3 million to the states involved. Oregon received $298,000 to fund additional consumer protection efforts.
International Money Transfer Schemes
Scam artists love a recession. Complaints against international money schemes have continued to rise over the last two years, with the category moving up a spot to #2 on the 2009 Top Ten Consumer Complaint List. The Department received 1,021 complaints about international money schemes with $707,783 in reported losses.
These international money schemes take a variety of elaborate and convincing forms, ranging from the foreign lottery, work-at-home and "business opportunity" schemes, to elaborate fake investment opportunities. In response, Attorney General Kroger has dramatically increased consumer protection outreach performed by the Department of Justice, as well as expanded the Oregon Scam Alert Network, an e-mail alert network warning consumers of current scams happening in Oregon. Oregonians can sign up for the Scam Alert Network at www.oregonattorneygeneral.gov
Health-related consumer complaints have more than doubled in the last year. The Department of Justice received 893 health-related complaints, 399 of which targeted weight-loss programs. In 2009 more than 300 Oregonians received refunds totaling more than $180,000 from the owners of the defunct diet chain L.A. Weight Loss Franchise Company through a settlement obtained by the Oregon Department of Justice. The Department alleged that the company had no competent or reliable scientific evidence to support health claims that their "dietary supplements" aided in weight loss or "normalized blood pressure."
Among Attorney General Kroger's major consumer protection priorities is to combat health care fraud. As a national leader in this field, the Department has recovered millions of dollars for Oregon consumers and the Oregon Health Plan from corporations that break the law. In 2009 the Department concluded major investigations of pharmaceutical giants such as Pfizer, Bayer, and Aventis and recovered over $16.8 million for Oregon taxpayers.
Not all areas of consumer complaints increased in 2009. Complaints about collection agencies decreased from 834 in 2008 to 774. Typical complaints against collection agencies include allegations that an agency began collection attempts without verifying that the consumer owed the debt, attempting to collect a debt from the wrong person and instances of abusive collection practices such as using threatening language and calling a consumer's workplace.
No state agency was able to enforce violation of the Unlawful Debt Collection Practices Act in 2009, but the Department of Justice successfully persuaded the Legislature to give it authority to do so starting in 2010.
Home Ownership Lending
The effects of the home foreclosure crisis have vaulted a new industry to the 2009 Top Ten Consumer Complaint list -- the home ownership lending industry. This category includes companies that extend real estate credit; loan modifiers; mortgage brokers; equity buyers; and foreclosure rescue scams. In 2009, Oregonians filed 761 home ownership lending complaints. Many of the more recent complaints involve predatory "mortgage rescue" companies that target homeowners desperate to save their homes. These companies charge homeowners large up-front fees to review mortgage documents and negotiate a modification with the lender. In reality, these companies do little to help save the home and leave the homeowner in a worse economic predicament.
The 2008 Oregon Mortgage Rescue Fraud Protection Act prohibits loan modification companies from collecting advance fees and using confusing contract language. Oregonians should not pay up-front fees for mortgage modification help.
"On the one hand, it is discouraging that Oregon consumers faced more scammers and unscrupulous businesses in 2009," Attorney General Kroger said. "But I am confident that tougher consumer protection laws will help the Department of Justice crack down. I also believe the new consumer complaint search feature will help consumers better educate themselves and avoid businesses that seek to take advantage of them."
Attorney General John Kroger, Oregon Real Estate Agency, Portland Housing Bureau and Oregon Association of Realtors will host a foreclosure fraud symposium at the Oregon Convention Center. This symposium will educate real estate professionals about the growing problem of mortgage and foreclosure fraud in Oregon. Over 550 real estate professionals are currently registered to attend.
When: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday, March 10, 2010.
Where: Oregon Convention Center, 777 NE Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., Portland, Oregon 97232; Ballrooms 201-202.
Attorney General John Kroger leads the Oregon Department of Justice. The Department's mission is to fight crime and fraud, protect the environment, improve child welfare, promote a positive business climate and defend the rights of all Oregonians.