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Dissatisfied customer? Assert your consumer rights

Had a negative customer service experience? Don't let companies get the best of you.

It's the first weekend of summer, so we thought we'd talk to a few of our listeners about what's making them hot -- hot under the collar, that is. And it turns out a lot of you are ticked off about questionable customer relations at companies you deal with. So, we've invited our favorite consumer rights crusader to weigh in on what to do when you're getting the runaround. Los Angeles Times consumer columnist David Lazarus is here to help.   

Moyosore in Minneapolis, Minn., has had trouble dealing with his cable company. He was in the process of moving and called his cable company to request that they close his account. But a few months later, he received a letter saying he owed the company some money -- a charge he disputes. He ignored the letters, but then a collection agency started calling and harassing him. What should he do?

"Federal law says a debt collector cannot harass people, so that's the first thing. If they're calling at all hours, if they're being in any way abusive on the telephone, you call them on that -- you report them to the Federal Trade Commission because a consumer does have rights here," says Lazarus. "Now all of these debt collectors by law have to have a dispute resolution process. You contact them, you go to their website, you find out how you can challenge a debt. You're going to have to submit something in writing saying this isn't correct for X, Y, and Z reasons. Moreover, a debt collector by law has to show you in writing what you owe. So call them on it and make them have to do that."

Lazarus says Moyosore should call the cable company back, immediately ask for a supervisor, and then confirm that there's a record of his attempt to terminate the account. Then, once that's acknowledged, find out what the charge is for, and work out whether he does or does not owe. Lazarus says Moyosore has to stick with resolving the issue and not give up or his credit rating could be at risk.

Kate in Tulsa, Okla., wrote to us about a consumer issue involving health insurance. About a year ago, she had an injury and developed sciatica. She started seeing an in-network doctor to help her with the pain. Kate says she paid her co-pays and didn't see a physical therapist more times than her insurance allowed. But then the insurance company started giving her excuses as to why they wouldn't pay for her visits -- telling her she had a preexisting condition. But Kate says that's not true. And then, her bill was sent to collections. She has disputed it in writing with the collections agency and eventually just paid the debt because she didn't want her credit rating to be affected. But then she found out her credit score dropped as a result anyway.

Lazarus says type of scenario -- with insurers disputing preexisting conditions -- is all too common. He says what Kate has to do is square things off with the health insurer. He says she has to go back and make sure that her insurer acknowledges everything she is claiming and then get their help to deal with the debt collectors.

"The credit agencies are such a hassle. Each one of them has their own dispute resolution process -- none of them are friendly, none of them are easy. It's a pain, but you've got to do it. Every time these guys inflict this level of pain on a consumer, the onus on you is to dig your way out or have these things come and haunt you later," says Lazarus.

John from Mason, Ohio, opted to not get trip insurance for a vacation he had planned to Europe. But he had outpatient surgery before the trip and had to cancel his flights because of complications. His flight was with Continental, which subsequently got bought by United. But because of the merger he's had a ton of issues trying to re-book his flights. What should he do?

"The central issue here was the United buy out of Continental. When you try to merge these computer systems together, all heck breaks loose. And that is one of the problems with big mergers cause consumers can easily fall through the crack. By my reckoning here, the computer erased the value of [the] ticket," says Lazarus.

Lazarus says he's going to have to backtrack and continue talking with customer service. He tells John to put this all in writing -- politely -- and send either an email or a registered letter to the CEO's office.

"The CEO of virtually every company, but I can guarantee it for the airlines, has a dispute resolution team. This is kind of a little secret that I can share with people. And that dispute resolution team trumps all the other ones because they report to the big boss and so your letter or email goes there, the CEO's office hands it to their team and says fix this. And then suddenly you have a whole different breed of customer service rep dealing with your problem. And point out to them in your letter what you think the theory is -- as a result of the computer systems coming together apparently the value of your ticket got wiped out, thus causing this cascade of problems," says Lazarus. "Something tells me that if you're polite about it and remind them that they don't want to lose a customer in good standing to the two or three other airlines that exist in the world, then they're going to want to work with you."

About the author

David Lazarus is an American business and consumer columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
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In regards to the call about being sent to collections for the cable bill:
I worked at a call center a while back, and I got this call EVERY DAY. We billled for the month most recently used and not the month you were currently using, so people would call in, cancel and pay for the last bill issued and think they were done. They would call back the next month saying "Why do I owe $X? I cancelled last month" I would explain that when they cancelled they had already have used 2 weeks (or whatever) amount of service for the bill they are currently looking at so this is their last bill. Sometimes, the customer would say they didn't feel like they owed that money and, inturn, be sent to collections. I'm not saying that this is exactly what happened to your caller, but I wouldn't be suprised because it is disturbingly common. My suggestion would be to pay what you dont think you owe and fight it with the company after the fact. Collections agencies are difficult to deal with and once your bill is sent there, your previous service provider has nearly no ability to help you.

Kate should contact her state insurance commissioner or the office that regulates insurance companies in her state. She should file a complaint against her insurance company. This tends to get the insurance company's attention, elevate their response in terms of speed and personnel and notifies the regulatory body of the practices of the insurance company in question. Also, many states track these complaints by insurance carrier. As an insurance agent, we have used this as a last resort when the insurance company does not seem willing to uphold their end of the insurance contract.

David correctly states that consumers have rights under federal law, but his advice to contact the FTC stops short of what is necessary for the consumer to actually vindicate her or his rights. The FTC occasionally investigates, and sometimes brings class action lawsuits and recommends changes to the law. The federal consumer protection laws contain provisions for consumers to recover their attorneys' fees in lawsuits brought to enforce these laws because congress understood that 1) the creditors have more resources to defend consumer's rights lawsuits than consumers have to prosecute them, 2) the amounts at stake in any single consumer case do not justify the outlay of a lot of money to bring these suits, and 3) the government cannot be everywhere and fix everything. If a debt collector is abusing a consumer, there are plenty of lawyers willing to provide a free consultation to see whether the Fair
Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) provides a remedy. If a consumer's credit is being affected by erroneous information on the credit report, consumer's attorneys will help identify remedies under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). If creditors have gotten consumers into unfair contracts by trickery or otherwise, a consumer's rights attorney can help enforce provisions of the Truth-In-Lending Act (TILA). There are state consumer protection laws too. While your state's attorney general may help mediate a dispute with a creditor, they cannot represent individual consumers. The FTC and attorneys general need to know about the abuses going on out there in order to work on the big picture. Individual consumers, however, need individual representation, and congress has ensured that it is available. If a consumer has a problem with a debt collector or a creditor, he or she should really call a lawyer. If you've been injured physically you don't call the Surgeon General, you see a doctor. If your rights have been trampled by a debt collector or a creditor, you need to consult a lawyer who practices consumer's rights law.

Kate's story is all too common. We think we're safe from money problems if we have medical insurance. In fact, the number one cause of bankruptcies in this country is medical bills, and most of those folks, like Kate, had insurance. We need to join the rest of the world and provide universal health care coverage for our citizens that does not have for-profit, private insurers at its core. The so-called Affordable Care Act, unfortunately, retains as its core the for-profit insurance industry whose number one goal is making money for shareholders and CEOs, not providing care for its subscribers. When the ACA fails, not only to save money but to cover all citizens, maybe then we'll wake up and decide to open Medicare to all citizens, not just the disabled and those over age 65. If we expand and improve Medicare, instituting cost savings, we'll save billions of dollars every year. And people like Kate can get treatment for sciatica without fighting with insurance companies and collection agencies.

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