So you’ve been wronged by a business…
You’re not alone! According to data from the Federal Trade Commission, nearly 3 million Americans filed consumer complaints against businesses in 2017. They reported losing a total of $905 million due to shady business practices.
There’s no reason businesses should get away with misleading customers out of money, selling them faulty products, or otherwise failing to hold up their end of the business bargain, right? That’s why it’s so important for consumers to understand all the different ways they can get justice when a business lets them down.
There are many different avenues you can take once you decide to take up a complaint against a business. From dealing with the business directly or posting about your problem to social media, to contacting a regulatory agency or seeking legal action, we as consumers have the ability to have our voices heard when they have a legitimate complaint against a business.
Have issues with a business, but not sure where to start? You’ve come to the right place. Step by step, we’ll show you how to make a consumer complaint, how to escalate it if the business isn’t responding, and how to ensure that you get justice when a business wrongs you. Keep reading for examples and statistics on consumer complaints, or jump to our step-by-step guide.
WHAT IS A CONSUMER COMPLAINT?
When you become a customer of a business, there’s an expectation that you will give the business money, and they’ll provide you with the product or service you’re looking for.
But that’s not always exactly how it goes.
Any time that transaction goes wrong and you feel that the business was at fault, you may have the basis to make a consumer complaint. This sounds serious, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be. Many consumer complaints are the result of minor misunderstandings and can be resolved with just a conversation between the customer and the business.
But some are the result of businesses engaging in practices that are shady or even downright illegal. And many fall somewhere in between.
Here are some of the most common types of consumer complaints. (Keep in mind that your complaint doesn’t have to fit neatly into one of these boxes — these are just examples.)
EXAMPLES OF COMMON CONSUMER COMPLAINTS
Type of complaint:
A business sold a faulty or damaged product
How serious is it?
It can be extremely serious if the business is intentionally selling products that don’t live up to its advertising. But it’s also not uncommon for products to get damaged during shipping or while at the store, so if you receive a product that isn’t exactly what you expected, a call to the business’s customer service line to report the problem is often all it takes for them to provide a resolution.
You sign up for a new cable plan that includes a DVR, but when it arrives, it won’t turn on.
Type of complaint:
A business did not deliver on promised services
How serious is it?
It depends. This could be the result of a simple misunderstanding or mistake on the business’ part. Or it could be more nefarious, like if the business is taking money for services it never intends to provide. In this situation, you may want to start by contacting customer service, and if that doesn’t get your complaint resolved, escalate it (see our step-by-step guide below).
You sign up for a phone plan that says you get unlimited data. But when you start using the phone, you realize your data speeds tank after you use a few gigabytes. And when you get the bill, you see overage charges.
Type of complaint:
A business is scamming customers out of money
How serious is it?
Very serious. While “scam” is not a legal term, there are laws against most things we consider scams! A scam is when a business takes money from you with no intention whatsoever to deliver on what it has promised in exchange for that money. See common scams here.
You get your cell phone bill and are shocked to see it is much higher than usual. It turns out a sales rep at the phone company switched your plan without your permission — a somewhat common practice called “slamming” — and says you’re now on the hook for paying for a plan you never signed up for.
Type of complaint:
A business pretends to be something it isn’t in order to get your money or personal information
How serious is it?
Very serious. Fraud is illegal! If a business is misrepresenting itself, its qualification, or its licensing in order to sell you products or services (or if someone is pretending to be a business in order to get your money or personal information), it might be committing fraud. See common fraud cases here.
You receive an email that appears to be from your cable company asking you to “confirm” some details about your account. Once you do, it turns out it wasn’t the cable company and you’re now at risk for identity theft.
WHY FILE A CONSUMER COMPLAINT?
As you’ll see in the steps below, filing a consumer complaint can turn into a process that requires some effort.
So why do it?
The most obvious reason is to get back money you’ve lost because of a business’s mistake or shady practices. If you paid money to a business and did not receive the good or service you expected, you probably want your money back — especially if it was a significant amount! And a consumer complaint can be a good way to do that.
But money isn’t the only reason individual consumers pursue complaints. Sometimes money isn’t the resolution a consumer is seeking. Sometimes it’s a replacement product, or even just an apology from a business that made a mistake.
Customers who have been truly wronged by businesses deserve justice, no matter what it looks like. Filing a consumer complaint can be a way to make sure businesses are being held accountable and justice is served.
And while the process can sometimes involve some effort, in some cases a complaint is bigger than just the person making it. By filing a complaint, you may be protecting others from being wronged in a similar way in the future. For legitimate complaints against businesses that are letting their customers down, this can be a huge help to future buyers!
For statistics on customer complaints, we turn to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). According to FTC data, people might be becoming more scam-savvy. For the most recent years on file, the number of people who report falling victim to scams and fraud has been on a downward trend year-over-year. However, the amount of money people reported losing to scams and fraud has been on the rise.
The top categories for consumer complaints through the FTC have been:
And while there may be a stereotype about scams targeting older folks who are less familiar with technology, the FTC actually found that young people in their 20s reported losing money to fraud more often than people over the age of 70. On the other hand, older people who fell victim to scams reported losing more money.
On the other hand, the FTC doesn’t track complaints for an industry that sparks a lot of disputes between business and customers: Telecommunications. Phone, cable, and internet companies fall under the purview of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC also oversees regulations and complaints related to TV and radio stations, spam calls, and more. According to FCC data, the overwhelming majority of complaints it receives are phone-related, followed by TV, then internet.
For phone, TV, and internet complaints, the top problems customers reported were with billing. 38 percent of all phone complaints, 45 percent of all TV complaints, and 35 percent of all internet complaints were related to billing.
Other common telecom complaints include equipment problems, availability, unauthorized charges, and speed and signal quality, but all in smaller numbers than billing complaints that were reported.
Now that we know what sorts of consumer complaints are out there, let’s talk about what to do about them..
If you have problems with an item you purchased or a service you paid for, you have rights! To assert those rights, you have the power to raise your issue to the company and to the relevant regulatory agencies and third-party consumer organizations. Your rights go behind the right to be heard — depending on the issue at hand, the applicable law, and how the company has behaved, in many cases you also have a right to a fair resolution.
If your goal is for the business to solve the problem — for instance by issuing you a refund, replacing a faulty product, or some other solution — the following steps can help you get through to the business that wronged you so they provide a solution.
First, collect documentation that supports your side of the story in your complaint.
This might include receipts, warranties, contracts, work orders, photos, and any written communication you’ve had with the company. Having all of this information gathered in one place will save you time down the line if you end up needing it to help prove your case.
This can start with just a phone call to the company’s customer service line. Explain to the representative what your problem is and how you’d like the company to solve it. It’s possible they’ll take care of it then and there, and you don’t have to escalate your complaint any further. That would be great news! But all of us know that this doesn’t always result in a fix.
If the representative you’re talking to can’t or won’t help you, ask to speak to their manager or supervisor. If that person also can’t or won’t help you, ask to speak to their manager or supervisor. Keep moving up the chain of command as high as you can, and try to keep a record of who you’ve spoken with and what they’ve said.
Eventually, you might run out of people to escalate to. At that point, if it’s clear the company isn’t interested in simply resolving your complaint, you should reach out one more time in writing. You can send this in an email or a letter. Keep a copy of your written complaint for yourself, and send the other one to the business. In it, write a detailed description of what you’re complaining about and why, and lay out how you would like the business to solve your complaint.
This step is totally optional, but might help you get resolution for your complaint. If you have social media accounts, use them to complain publicly. It might be that, faced with the pressure of having a complaint aired where other customers and potential future customers can see it, the company is spurred to action.
Tagging the company on a platform like Twitter might also alert a corporate office or higher-level employee that you couldn’t reach on the phone. In fact, Many companies have dedicated teams responding to customers who tag them in complaints on social media.
Social media postings about consumer complaints have worked for a lot of people, especially if those social media postings go viral or get a lot of engagement.
If the company still hasn’t responded to you or isn’t willing to resolve your complaint, you’re going to have to do more legwork. It’s a bummer that you have to go through all these lengths to set things right when you’re not the one who did something wrong, but escalating your complaint once again by involving a third party might just get the business to pay attention to your problem.
While you have a lot of different options, including industry self-regulators and nonprofit consumer organizations, some of the most helpful can be government regulators:
State Consumer Protection Offices: Many US states take consumer law violations seriously. Reaching out to the appropriate state office can sometimes get your issue resolved, as well as helping alert the government and other customers to keep an eye out. You can find your state’s protection office using this government tool. You can also check for any licensing or other regulatory board that has jurisdiction over the type of business you’re dealing with, though that will take some research on your part.
Federal Government Offices: If you’ve been scammed or defrauded, the Federal Trade Commission may be able to help. This page lists common scam types and resources for filing a complaint against a business with the FTC. Note that scams and fraud are illegal, and in many cases, you might want to file a police report in addition to reporting them to the FTC. For Telecom complaints, you can also file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) here.
International Watchdogs: If your complaint has to do with a business that works online and doesn’t have a US presence, go to econsumer.gov to file a complaint through this program of the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network.
If you’ve tried these other avenues and still haven’t gotten resolution, it might be time to start a legal claim.
Of the options on this list, taking legal action tends to have the most force behind it, but it can also take awhile. Some customers may choose to the get this started early on, while working through other steps on this list, while others save it as a last resort.
Launching a legal process sounds pretty intimidating to some people, and rightly so. But there are numer number of tools and resources out there to help guide consumers through the process and give them a better chance at getting justice.
For one thing, consumer laws can vary by state. If you’re initiating legal action by yourself, you’ll want to review your state’s consumer laws. Or else turn to someone who can help.
Another thing to look out for up front is a forced arbitration clause in your contract. Many cable and phone companies, credit card issuers, auto lenders, and more include these in their contracts. The clauses generally prevent you from filing a lawsuit against the company, even if the dispute is a result of their own extreme negligence. Even with a mandatory arbitration clause, though, you have options.
Class Action: If you are not the only consumer suffering from the problem you had with a business, you might be able to be a representative in a class action suit, which combines similar complaints from many consumers against a single company in one case. These can be a powerful way to use strength in numbers to take on large corporations that are doing wrong by their customers. Unfortunately, these are the types of legal claims that forced arbitration clauses typically prohibit.
Small Claims Court: Arbitration clauses typically don’t extend to small claims court, where you can take your claim before a judge to ask for compensation up to a (generally pretty low) limit. If your dispute is over a few thousand dollars or less and you have the time and energy to file paperwork, prepare your case, and appear in court, this is a good way to get compensation back.
Independent Arbitration: If your contract includes an arbitration clause, and you choose not to pursue small claims court, your other legal option is to bring your dispute to be argued in front of an independent person called an arbitrator. If you’re not deterred by having to face off against the company, this gives you the chance to make your case to someone who can force the company to fix your issue. Also: many companies don’t want to spend money on the arbitration process, so if you have a good case and put them on notice that you intend to arbitrate, they very well might offer you a settlement.
Having to do a lot of legwork to get justice when someone else has wronged you is kind of a downer. But keep in mind that you have a right to take action, and that doing so can get the business that let you down to take steps to make things right. And taking action yourself can also help protect other fellow American consumers from harm.
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