The New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA) was enacted in 1960 to protect New Jersey citizens against deceptive business practices. When it was first passed, the state’s Attorney General served as the sole enforcer of the act. Though the Act was amended in 1971 to permit private enforcement, the Attorney General’s office, specifically the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, is still the public’s most important protector against scam artists and fraudsters.
Earlier this month, acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman released information detailing the state’s consumer fraud enforcement efforts in 2014.
The Office of Consumer Protection, within the Division of Consumer Affairs, received a total of approximately 10,000 formal complaints from New Jersey consumers last year. This is a separate count from the 71,122 calls last year to the Division’s Consumer Service Center hotline, many of which are resolved through various forms of mediation or are referred to other appropriate agencies.
As is often the case year after year, the categories of “Home Improvement” at #1 and “Motor Vehicles” (which includes auto sales, auto repairs, and related matters) at #2 dominated 2014’s top 10 complaints list. The “Professional Services” category, which includes complaints about physicians, lawyers, accountants, medical labs, and other professions or businesses, was #3.
Last year also saw a new addition to the top 10 list: “Energy Marketers,” representing consumer complaints about third-party energy suppliers. In June 2014, in response to an unprecedented number of complaints, the Division of Consumer Affairs and New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) filed court actions against three third-party energy suppliers that, among other things, allegedly failed to deliver on the monthly savings that were represented or guaranteed to consumers. One of the companies, HIKO Energy LLC, agreed to pay $2.1 million, including $1.85 million in consumer restitution, to resolve the State’s complaint. The other two lawsuits are pending.
The complete Top 10 consumer complaint categories list for 2014 is as follows:
#1 Home Improvement Contractors
#2 Motor Vehicles
#3 Professional Services
#4 Energy Marketers
#5 Banks/Financial Institutions
#6 Health Clubs
#7 Miscellaneous Scams
#8 Internet Sales
#9 Debt Collection
#10 Wireless Phones
As the Attorney General suggested, the top types of complaints remain fairly consistent year after year.
Top Types of Complaints
|1||Motor Vehicle||Home Improvements||Price Gouging||Home Improvement Contractors|
|2||Home Improvement||Motor Vehicles||Home Improvements||Motor Vehicles|
|3||Loans||Credit-Debt Collection||Motor Vehicles||Professional Services|
|4||Internet Sales/Goods||Loans||Telemarketing||Energy Marketers|
|5||Professional/Occupational Service||Professional/Occupational Services||Loans||Banks/Financial Institutions|
|6||Fuel/Home Use||Internet Sales/Goods||Professional Services||Health Clubs|
|7||Banks/Financial||Home Furnishings/Furniture||Debt Collection||Miscellaneous Scams|
|8||Debt Collection||Wireless Phone Services||Internet Sales/Goods||Internet Sales|
|10||Cable TV/Subscriptions; Home Furnishings/Furniture (tied)||Appliances||Health Clubs||Wireless Phones|
Despite the year over year consistency, there are multiple bills pending in the New Jersey Legislature that would expand the CFA to cover even more situations:
- A308/S2203 – Prohibits escrow agent evaluation services from charging escrow agents fees.
- A628 – Requires printers to display average cost per 1,000 printed pages and ink cartridges to display yield.
- A651/S2113 – Concerns credit card interchange fees and consumer protection.
- A1364/S386 – “Consumer Protection Act of 2012.”
- A1977 – Includes payday lending as a violation of the Consumer Fraud act.
- A2505 – Regulates sale of olive oil.
- A2793 – Includes certain deceptive practices in the advertising of floral or ornamental products or services as a violation of the Consumer Fraud act.
- A3519– Requires manufacture date of tires be posted at point of sale; requires information concerning used tires over 10 years old be provided at point of sale.
- A3599 – Requires printed advertisements to bear the word “advertisement.”
- A3646 – Limits overlimit fee assessed by issuer of credit or debit cards.
- A3648 – Prohibits fees for certain bill payments.
- S1879 – Regulates placement of charges for products or services on telephone bills.
- S1517 – Regulates sale of certain bicycles with quick release wheels.
These bills are unnecessary. Most if not all of the specific items singled out in these bills are already covered under the broad, sweeping language of the CFA. Expanding the Act only limits its effectiveness by making consumers wonder if goods and services not specifically mentioned in the Act are covered.
NJCJI encourages the legislature to use the data from the Attorney General’s office as a sign that the Act does not need expanded.